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Compact Aerial Inspection System for Elevated and Small Spaces




OBJECTIVE: Develop and test a compact, stable aerial inspection system with sufficient endurance (e.g., > 15 minutes on station) capable of visually inspecting ship surfaces in tight, confined, and elevated spaces, with easy-to-use pilot/visualization/inspection software tools at the ground station.


DESCRIPTION: Ship construction and sustainment requires that a multitude of tanks and internal spaces, plus external surfaces, are prepped/remediated, coated, and inspected for quality. Currently, these surfaces are manually inspected at every step in the process, typically in difficult to access spaces, requiring personal protection and support equipment. Overall, there is a desire to remove or reduce the number of dark, dirty, and dangerous jobs in the interests of worker safety and production efficiency.


The objective is to develop and test an aerial inspection system capable of visually inspecting ship surfaces in tight, confined, and elevated spaces, with easy-to-use pilot/visualization/inspection software tools at the ground terminal complementing a compact, long-endurance, stable airborne platform. Currently available airborne systems capable of carrying the required sensor payload and command and control electronics have insufficient endurance to be able to perform much usable inspection.


The aerial inspection system consists of an airborne segment (the aerial platform), a ground segment (the ground control station) and the communications link between them. The air platform itself will need to be compact, long-endurance, and stable while supporting visual inspection requiring a high resolution color camera with gimbal and illumination. The ground segment will need to support pilot controls, as well as inspection-supporting software. The communications link will need to be robust to ship environments, accommodating metal tanks and indirect lines-of-site, while the entire system must be secure from an encryption and cybersecurity perspective.


While drone and unmanned aircraft vehicles/systems (UAV/UAS) are available within the inspection community, no commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drone capability has been able to meet the specific requirements of naval inspectors. Some of these challenges have included size, stability, endurance, cybersecurity, and compliance with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) guidance on certain covered UAS systems and parts. The endurance is a particular challenge when coupled with the small size (width) requirement; COTS inspection drones have offered tethers to overcome endurance challenges, however, while tethers can provide extended endurance, a tether may not be consistent with operating in extended/tight spaces. The cybersecurity aspect is an area that is not generally considered when designing a ‘drone,’ however, cybersecurity can have significant impact on whether a drone can be used within the Naval enterprise where collection of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) is likely.


General Requirements and Specifications:

Endurance: 15 minutes or greater (without any tether and outside of sight of the ground station); longer is desirable

Surface illumination: 50 foot candles; lighting system tolerant; able to compensate for reflective surfaces; field of regard for the lighting and camera should include up/down/left/right

High-resolution, color camera: capable of human eye resolution

Size: No wider than 14.75 inches nor taller than 13 inches; 24” or less preferred



General System Requirements:

Easily portable in a ship environment

Capable of operating stably in confined spaces and operate in a GPS denied environment (e.g., inside a ship hull)

Compliant with NDAA and Executive Order 13981

Communications link: certified to FIPS 140-2 Encryption or viable path thereto (i.e., any added hardware included in the endurance budget)

Required pilot interfaces for control; provided by ground station

User output from sensor package needed to perform its inspection mission: provided by ground station

• Hardening: capable of eventually being hardened to survive Naval test equipment requirements (e.g., MIL-STD-28800)
• Desirable ground station requirements: UAS battery life indicator; capable of saving video/imagery
• Capable of operating in 20mph winds
• Capable of carrying 1 pound of addition payload without reducing endurance (although endurance is the highest priority) (Objective)


PHASE I: Develop concepts for an aerial inspection system meeting the requirements in the Description. Demonstrate the feasibility of the concepts in meeting Navy and Naval Enterprise needs; and establish the concepts for development into a useful product. Establish feasibility through material testing and analytical modeling, as appropriate. Provide a Phase II development plan with performance goals and key technical milestones that address technical risk reduction.


PHASE II: Develop a prototype for evaluation to determine its capability in meeting the performance goals defined in the Phase II development plan and the Navy requirements for the aerial inspection system. Support Navy requirements for any flight operations, such as submittal of Navy Cybersecurity Waiver Board interaction, submissions and approvals, and development of a system security plan. Demonstrate system performance through prototype evaluation and modeling or analytical methods over the required range of parameters. Use evaluation results to refine the prototype into an initial design that will meet the Naval Enterprise requirements. Prepare a Phase III development plan to transition the technology to Naval Enterprise use.


PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: During Phase III it is expected that this product could go into useful service in government and industry shipyards as well as assist with naval sustainment activities. This product could be leveraged in commercial shipyards, industrial plant inspection, and any application requiring visual inspection in tight or confined spaces.



  1. MIL-PRF-28800 – Test Equipment for use with Electrical and Electronic Equipment
  2. NDAA 2021 Section 848
  3. Navy Drone Board information including DoD currently approved UAVs
  5. Navy ManTech Project book for project: (S2788) Tank inspection using Drones.

KEYWORDS: Inspection, Drone; Unmanned Airborne Vehicle; UAV; Unmanned Airborne System; UAS; Aerial inspection system; Ground station; Confined spaces

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