With a top speed of 900 miles per hour, a payload of 75,000 pounds, and numerous successful operations over the past 30-plus years, the B-1B Lancer is arguably one of the most lethal aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory.
In an effort to keep the aircraft flying and operational, the B-1 Program Office is sponsoring an initiative with Wichita State University’s National Institute of Aviation Research, to create a virtual or digital twin of the bomber, which will help identify maintenance and structural issues with the aircraft before they occur.
“Right now we are in a very reactive state when the B-1 has an issue,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Lay, Material Leader, B-1 Engineering Branch. “For example, if we find a crack on the [B-1] fleet, we then have to go and develop the repair, which isn’t the way you want to be. You want to already have the repair on the shelf, so that when you need it, it’s there. The digital twin will help us get to that point.”
Assisting in the effort in Wichita, is a B-1 that was pulled from the Bone Yard officially known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group or AMARG out at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. The aircraft which was manufactured in 1985 and last operational in 2002, was loaded onto flatbed trucks for the 1,000 mile drive to Wichita, Kansas.
Currently the team at NIAR are in the process of disassembling, inspecting and scanning every part of the aircraft down to the nuts and bolts and pieces of skin.
“Through the scanning process, we will discover all the places that saw structural failure or damage. It will create a living medical record for the B-1,” Lay said. “Then we will be able to apply data from aircraft in the field to help us predict areas that are more likely to have structural issues. This living virtual model of the B-1’s structure will be superimposed with layers of maintenance data, test/inspection results, and analysis tools, which can be integrated over the aircraft’s life cycle.”
While it will take six years to disassemble and scan every part of the plan, the work the program office and NIAR team have done since the effort started in April, is already helping the active B-1 fleet.
“We have been scanning the wings, and the wing scans have been helping us understand how to build new repairs for some of the cracks that we have seen in the wings themselves,” Lay said. “We are also currently developing inspection techniques and repairs for areas on the upper fuselage and sharing that data back with the OEM. We will use this data to better understand why we have seen fatigue damage in those areas.”
The combined work of the program office and NIAR are key to keeping the B-1 in the fight.
“Our mission is to keep the B-1 healthy and flying as long as it is required to meet Air Force operational needs,” said Bill Barnes, B-1 Senior Program Manager. “The B-1 has been flown hard operationally to support worldwide efforts for almost two decades now and it’s showing its age in the structures areas. So keeping the aircraft structurally sound is a key tenant in keeping the aircraft available as long as required. The digital twin supports that effort so that we can move from being reactive when we find a structural issue on the fleet to being proactive and knowing what’s coming.”
While the B-1 is the first military aircraft to start the process of being completely disassembled, scanned and digitally recreated, it certainly will not be the last.
“This [digital twin] is a revolutionary game changer for the B-1 Program Office and the Department of Defense as a whole,” said Lay. “As technology shows us new capabilities, the military needs to be quicker to adopt these capabilities and practices, because this will really support the B-1 and help us get to 2040.”
The B-1 Program Office is a division of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Bombers Directorate, which is responsible for the sustainment and modernization of the U.S. Air Force’s bomber fleet, which includes the B-1, B-2 and B-52.