The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research announced it is awarding more than $359,000 to University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Joel B. Harley to research new technology that inspects and assesses areas of aircraft that are normally inaccessible.

"My research group and I are excited for this opportunity to make a significant impact to the aerospace industry," Harley said.

The grant is through the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program, which is distributing $20.8 million in grants to 58 scientists and engineers from 41 research institutions and small businesses. Harley is the only faculty member from the U to receive an award.

Aircraft regularly undergo inspections to locate damage that could lead to catastrophic structural failure in flight. However, testing inaccessible areas of an aircraft remains a significant challenge for inspectors. For example, the interior structure of a wing is inaccessible without first disassembling the aircraft. Dissembling an aircraft is costly, time consuming, and creates additional opportunities to inadvertently cause structural damage. Harley’s project creates new technology to inspect and assess these inaccessible aircraft regions. 

His technology uses acoustic waves that travel throughout the interior of the aircraft to inspect these regions. Because the data collected by these acoustic waves is complex, Harley uses computer generated models to analyze the data and assess the aircraft’s health. This project will help improve the safety of aircraft and reduce the high costs necessary to maintain them.

The objective of the Young Investigator Research Program is to “foster creative basic research in science and engineering, enhance early career development of outstanding young investigators, and increase opportunities for the young investigators to recognize the Air Force mission and the related challenges in science and engineering,” according to the Air Force.