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Cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have completed a capstone design and research project with the Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center Aviation Development Directorate-Eustis at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

The capstone program exists as a partnership between senior cadets at the academy and Army organizations. Teams of three to six cadets design, build and test a mechanical device to support the sponsoring agency.

For the cadets supporting ADD-Eustis, the project was to find a way to monitor the condition of aircraft composites. On current Army aircraft, all damage is inspected visually. With Future Vertical Lift as the Army’s No. 3 priority, the goal is to increase the maintenance-free operating period, or the time the aircraft is in service.

“Unlike metals, composites can live with a certain level of damage without having any catastrophic failure. (It) requires a new frame of mind – that we don’t necessarily have to fix everything the second we find it,” explained Delaney Jordan, Aviation & Missile Center aerospace engineer and capstone sponsor.

The idea is that work on less critical damage can wait until the aircraft undergoes a larger maintenance period, especially when the inspection process can be costly and time-consuming.

“A lot of times, there’s skin or instruments or parts that need to come off just so we can get in and look at the structure of the aircraft,” Lt. Col. Andrew Bellocchio, U.S. Military Academy department of civil and mechanical engineering assistant professor, said. “How do we determine the structural health of an aircraft or components of an aircraft without that invasive, intrusive visual inspection?”

“It would be ideal if we could monitor damage, without having to inspect it visually, and (instead) we could do it using cameras or using sensors of some kind,” Jordan said. “That was the topic that we put out to the cadet team.”

Cadets Dante Carrillo, Thomas Schuette and Anthony Villandre spent their first semester assessing different technology options and they decided to pursue a fiber optic solution. They built and tested a system during the second semester.

Their design placed fiber optic strain sensors between carbon fiber layers, which was cured to create a solid piece. The piece went through ballistic and drop testing to determine if the fiber strains can detect damage. Jordan said the team was also researching if damage to the sensor could be detected in real-time. She added that, no matter what, the project will be beneficial to ADD-Eustis in the future.

“There’s so much that you learn by doing something the first time and being the first one to do it. We hadn’t worked with this fiber optic composite system before,” Jordan said. “They were the first ones to do it, and getting to see what problems they ran into makes it a lot easier for us when we work with it because we don’t have to learn those lessons ourselves. We’re able to use what they (learned).”

That experience is happening Armywide. Twenty-six of the 32 West Point capstone projects involved one of the six Army modernization priorities.

Lt. Col James Bluman, director of the Center for Innovation and Engineering, which coordinates research at West Point with partners from across the Army and Department of Defense, said the academy is “very excited and grateful” to work with ADD-Eustis.

“It is especially valuable to work on problems for Army aviation since many of our cadets hope to become aviation officers, and they are very interested in supporting a technology that might make its way into Future Vertical Lift, such as the structural health monitoring project this last year,” Bluman said.

As a whole, the capstone program is a huge benefit for the sponsor, Bellocchio said. “For a relatively quick turnaround time – we’re talking one academic year or eight months or so – a project can be conceived, designed, built and tested, and provided to the sponsor. In terms of contracting, that’s relatively quick,” he said.

“It’s a chance for the sponsor to explore an idea that maybe they don’t have dedicated funding for, or say ‘we’re just curious about this, let’s have a cadet team look at it’ and see if it looks promising,” Bellocchio said.

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