News | March 23, 2023

NAWCAD Innovation Challenge Team Takes Closer Look at Icing on Aircraft

By Adam Hochron

A five-person team from Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Lakehurst, New Jersey, developed an innovative way to detect ice on an aircraft as part of the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Innovation Challenge.

In the Innovation Challenge, teams from around NAVAIR come together to develop cutting-edge engineering and scientific solutions to issues they identify in Naval Aviation today. Selected teams submit a white paper identifying the challenge they’ll address during the six-month challenge, which ends with an outbrief to leadership.
“TEAM iDOCTOR,” which stands for Inspection and De-icing using Cold formation Thermal Object Recognition, consisted of Lakehurst team members from logistics and engineering career fields who developed the system using thermal imaging and a machine learning algorithm to find ice on an aircraft. 

“The Innovation Challenge is an exciting opportunity for teammates from around Lakehurst to come together to tackle a challenge facing the Warfighter,” NAWCAD Lakehurst executive director Kathleen P. Donnelly said. “It is because of groups like Team iDOCTOR and their novel approach to a serious problem that will help keep the fleet operating successfully under extreme conditions.”

The new technology aligns with the Navy’s increasing focus on the Arctic, outlined in the strategic blueprint in January 2021 called Blue Arctic. The document looked at the role the Navy will play as the Artic Region becomes more accessible to allies and adversaries over the next 20 years. 

“The project’s goal was to improve mission readiness and the efficacy of the Naval de-icing process. When ice accumulates on the outside of an aircraft or an airframe, it must get removed because that poses a threat to mission readiness,” said team leader Stephen Opet, an electrical engineer with Support Equipment (SE) Department. “The idea being that the system could turn the planes around in less time, essentially improving mission readiness by getting them back in the air and getting that ice off the plane quicker than the current procedures.”

While a visual inspection can identify noticeable patches of ice on an aircraft, clear ice is harder to spot. Radiometric thermal imaging data and the machine learning algorithm can more effectively locate ice for removal.

“As we increase our presence in the cold arctic conditions, we expect, specifically in those regions, icing on aircraft to be a greater barrier for mission readiness. And therefore, a de-icing procedure improvement such as that proposed in our project would probably maximize its value there,” Opet said. 

The team built an in-house icing chamber to collect small-scale thermal imaging data and established a large-scale testing capability using parts from retired aircraft in Lakehurst’s Environmental Test Lab. In addition, the team created a library of thermal data for use in future research.

Jonathan Alcantara, a computer scientist in the Mission Operations and Integration Department, said another advantage of the technology is that it uses passive thermal imaging, making the process faster and more cost-effective.

“The best way to describe the Innovation Challenge is ‘awesome’ because we’re able to go from step zero to something deliverable all within those six months; and it’s all on our team and our decisions to do that,” said Charles Homoki, a mechanical engineer in the SE Department. “We were able to really learn a lot about what it’s like to work for the organization and leverage the organization’s resources to get something together and produce a deliverable.”

Adam Hochron is a communications specialist with Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, Lakehurst, New Jersey.