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Traditionally, ship maintenance inspections are conducted manually, which often means the vessels must be in port. With a digital twin of a ship, however, sensor data collected by drones can be distributed to colleagues on shore – or vice versa – for inspection, ensuring the readiness of combat systems without the need to dock.
The US Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Port Hueneme, Calif., has been working with Aerial Alchemy, an unmanned aerial systems company, to research ways to use digital twins and UAS for this purpose. A Cooperative Research and Development Agreement signed in June 2018 laid out the specifics, and the company produced a digital twin of the research vessel “Independence.”
The initial plan was to create a digital twin of the ship so maintenance engineers at the surface warfare centers could identify damage, corrosion and alignment issues faster and be more proactive on the maintenance when the ship comes into port.
Having the digital twin results in lower maintenance costs and human error because experts onboard and on shore can view the same reliable data and make decisions before degradation hits the point of failure.
Alan Jaeger, manager of Naval Sea Systems Command’s Office of Research and Technology Applications, said stated: “The concept of a ‘digital twin’ or as-built models of surface ships provides extensive opportunities to better serve the fleet. Imagine being able to not only collect valuable information without placing maintenance personnel in potentially hazardous situations, but to also do it with the ship underway while obtaining better and more accurate data in the process.”
When creating a digital twin, the company starts with a discovery phase to determine the appropriate remote-sensing technologies and design a purpose-built UAS that can collect the most useful data in the most practical way. The company uses LiDAR and hyperspectral imaging, which analyzes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum, and can detect corrosion because paint reflects radiation differently if there is underlying rust.
According to defensesystems.com, the project is part NSWC’s Naval Innovative Science and Engineering research on technologies that can advance the future of in-service engineering.