ARLINGTON, Va. --- The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches straight up from the deck of the USS Midway, its operator carefully maneuvering the UAV in front of the ship’s air traffic control tower. Along the UAV’s predetermined flight path, the camera mounted beneath the UAV captures ship imagery for a few minutes, and then zooms back down to its landing pad.
The sounds and the action on board the USS Midway are much different today from decades ago. The legendary aircraft carrier that once launched aircraft from its deck during the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm is now a museum in San Diego, California. Although decommissioned, the U.S. Navy in partnership with the Midway Museum’s leadership team still discover opportunities to utilize the ship to benefit America’s Sailors and Marines.
“Topside Drone” is a development of a corrosion/anomaly detection sensor payload and processing scheme, outfitted to a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) UAV. The technology will inspect and detect material defects, corrosion, warping and other conditions plaguing naval vessels. The drone flies around the area of inspection and takes photographs and measurements for evaluation to determine if corrosion exists—and the severity.
TechSolutions—the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global’s rapid-response science and technology prototyping initiative—is the sponsor for this developing technology.
“Corrosion is there all the time; elements like rain and seawater are constantly corroding a ship,” said Lt. Rouben Azad, a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who attended the demonstration. “I have been on ships where it is difficult for the human eye to identify corrosion. Through infrared imagery, the Topside Drone inspection technology can identify corrosion from 80 feet away.”
Topside Drone features complementary payloads for data collection. A LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) payload uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to an object. A LiDAR scan accurately captures the geometry of everything in line of sight and is used to create a digital model of the ship.
A second payload of visible/infrared camera captures images that orient geometrically to the digital model. The images are then algorithmically inspected for corrosion using computer vision.
In addition to enhanced identification capabilities, Topside Drone will reduce the maintenance demand for Sailors.
“Sailors spend a lot of their time looking at different things on the ship, from corrosion to other equipment,” said Dr. Mark Bilinski, Naval Information Warfare Center, Pacific and the integrated project team lead for topside drone. “A UAV can go around and take photos of the topside of a ship, collect that data quickly and autonomously, and then the data can be evaluated to identify if corrosion exists without tying up a Sailor’s time.”
During the demo, the computer vision algorithm analyzed the collected data and revealed significant corrosion all over the USS Midway—as a museum ship, it was a target-rich environment.
TechSolutions accepts requests directly from Sailors on the deck plates and Marines on the front lines and delivers prototype solutions within approximately 12 months.
“ONR TechSolutions is doing a lot of good for Sailors and Marines,” said Azad. “They’re taking our feedback and delivering the tools we need to accomplish our mission. Topside Drone will save the Navy money and free up Sailors to apply their skills to their primary duties.”