New Drone Capabilities Evaluated by McConnell’s Innovation Lab

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Gavin Hameed
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Drone manufacturer Skydio and Boeing collaborated with McConnell's innovation lab to introduce a new drone program to wing leadership and future operators May 29, 2024.

During a presentation, the parties showcased the drone’s utility in the maintenance hangars by scanning a KC-46A Pegasus with Boeing's artificial intelligence and automatic damage detection software.

"Our drone combined with Boeing's AI can perform real-time 3D scans of aircraft," said Peyton Knippel, Skydio's director of Air Force business. "That scan will then be imported into Boeing's software, which will identify defects, anomalies, delamination, and inspection problems. Issues that may take a set of three to five maintainers over an hour to solve, we can solve within minutes."

A key feature of the Skydio drone is its autonomous operation. The drone utilizes computer vision to build a 3D model of its environment, enabling it to navigate and conduct scans without manual input.

"We program the drone with a set of rules, and it autonomously flies and scans the aircraft," Peyton said. "This means maintainers can focus on their jobs without becoming drone pilots. It's simply another tool to enable their mission and reduce timelines."

This process aims to streamline maintenance operations, reducing the need for extensive manpower and allowing quicker, automated reports on aircraft conditions.

McConnell plans to purchase two of these drones during the initial phase of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) operations.

The program, led by Capt. Timothy Schwanke, 22nd Air Refueling Wing chief of wing innovation, aims to integrate sUAS into various base operations.

"The program is designed to be multi-use," Schwanke said. "Security forces, fire, civil engineering, and public affairs are some of the primary stakeholders. The drones can be used for building inspections, weather assessments, media coverage and more."

This flexibility ensures that almost every agency on base can benefit from the technology.

Peyton is a former Tactical Air Control Party member with 21 years of service.

"I understand what it's like to be given equipment that doesn't make sense,” Peyton said. “This program is different. It extends the capability of Airmen and reduces timelines across standard base operations.”

The program's implementation at McConnell is part of a broader mandate by Gen. Mike Minahan, Air Mobility Command commander, who directed all AMC bases to develop and start a drone program. Several bases, including Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, MacDill AFB, Florida, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Dover AFB, Delaware, and Travis AFB, California, have already established operational drone programs.

As the program progresses, it is set to establish a new benchmark for efficiency and innovation at McConnell.