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AEDC Acoustic Imager places Top 3 in AFMC Spark Tank

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

The potential impact a project previously awarded funding through the Arnold Engineering Development Complex Spark Tank program could have across the Air Force Materiel Command enterprise did not go unnoticed.

That project – the acquisition of an acoustic imager – was selected as one of three semifinalists in the AFMC Spark Tank Integrated Capabilities challenge. It was among 32 submissions to the AFMC Spark Tank challenge. The three semifinalists selected presented their concepts to leaders during the AFMC Senior Leader Conference Oct. 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, headquarters of AFMC.

The acoustic imager is used to identify leaks in compressed air, gas and vacuum systems. It can also reveal the locations of electrical patrial discharge which, if left unaddressed, could result in system failure and power loss and could pose a safety hazard.

The imager utilizes technology which allows the user to pinpoint the location of ultrasonic anomalies such as leaks and electrical partial discharge by displaying it onto a digital image on the device. It also determines the severity level of the leak.

While effective in detecting ultrasounds, equipment used prior to the acquisition of the imager was limited in that it could not pinpoint the exact location of an issue. Personnel were required to “walk down” detected leaks to assess where they were occurring.

Wayne Horton, condition-based maintenance ultrasound lead at Arnold Air Force Base, headquarters of AEDC, served as principal investigator on the acoustic imager project and presented his proposal to the AEDC Spark Tank panel in early 2023. It was among seven projects to receive AEDC Innovation Grant funding through the AEDC Spark Tank program.

The acoustic imager is owned and operated by the Condition-Based Maintenance team at Arnold, but its use can be provided as a service to any area on base.

Arnold personnel were notified in September that the imager project had been selected for the AFMC-level competition.

“We were thrilled,” said AEDC Wing Process Manager Donna Spry. “This is the first time that an AEDC Spark Tank idea was selected for AFMC’s top three.”

Spry and others from the AEDC XPE office, including Chief Mike Dent and Innovation Manager Aaron Allen, traveled to Wright-Patterson for the competition. They were joined by Horton and Dr. Justin Garrard, reliability center maintenance and innovation manager, both with the Test Operations and Sustainment contractor for AEDC.

Spry, who presented the project to the AFMC Spark Tank panel, said many ideas submitted to the AEDC Spark Tank are complex-specific and cannot be scaled throughout the command, this was not the case with the acoustic imager. She added this was the primary reason the project was chosen to compete at the AFMC level.

“The imager can be a real benefit, with a quick return on investment, at all bases,” she said. “It has high impact and is low cost, around $30,000 each.”

As Spry delivered the presentation, the anticipation to show the imager in action was building.

“I was excited and could not wait to demonstrate how the equipment works,” Horton said. “I knew they would be impressed by it and could benefit from acoustic imaging at their locations.”

Following the presentation, Garrard went to the front of the room to initiate a simulated leak. Horton walked around, handing the imager to attendees to show them how the device works. Both Horton and Spry said the response to the imager from members of the panel and others in attendance was very positive.

“The audience was very intrigued with the tool that allows you to see sound,” Spry said.

During the demonstration, the imager worked just as described, with a clear display of the simulated leak visible on its screen. 

“The camera easily pinpointed where the leak was located,” Horton said. “The questions started to fly – ‘How does it work?,’ ‘Can it continuously monitor?,’ Can it be attached to a drone?’

“People were eager to see the equipment and were thinking about ways they could use it.”

A concept for Digital Effectiveness Based Design was determined to be the winner of the AFMC Spark Tank challenge, but AFMC Commander Gen. Duke Richardson had high praise for each of the projects presented, including the acoustic imager.

“All of the ideas were great,” Richardson said following the presentations of the three AFMC semi-finalists. “I want to see the command follow-through on all three ideas. They all fall under a ‘let’s just do it’ construct.”

Like Spry, Horton said he views the imager as an idea that could be implemented across AFMC installations due to its ease of use, relatively low cost and potential impact on operations. Spry described the opportunity to present the project to AFMC leaders as one of the biggest highlights of her career.

“I was so honored to be able to represent AEDC at the AFMC Spark Tank Top 3 Competition,” she said. “It was such a great experience.”

Spry added she wished to recognize Nathan Payne, lead test engineer for the 716th Test Squadron at Arnold. Payne had submitted an acoustic imager proposal during the 2022 AEDC Spark Tank competition. That imager, procured with mission funding, is used by the 716TS to detect piping and ducting leaks prior to wind tunnel testing. Its use has resulted in a 90% reduction in the time spent inspecting for leaks. 

She also expressed her appreciation to Horton and the rest of the CBM team at Arnold for looking at ways to enhance efficiency and safety at Arnold AFB.