How Vancouver's NGRAIN created a better stealth fighter inspection system



Stealth fighters are deadly, effective and notoriously finicky. The exterior skin that keeps them stealthy is vulnerable to nicks and dents. And even the smallest one can render a plane suddenly visible to enemy radar. For decades, that meant that every time a stealth fighter landed, a technician had to walk around it holding a pen and paper, manually logging—and sometimes literally tracing—any damage found. It wasn’t an efficient system or accurate, but for a long time it was the only system they had.

Thanks to one Canadian company, that’s no longer the case. Vancouver’s NGRAIN found a way to digitize and streamline the stealth inspection process for Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 fighter, which is scheduled to be combat ready next year. “We said, let’s replace the pen, let’s replace the paper,” says Gabe Batstone, NGRAIN’s CEO. “Let’s get that technician walking around with a ruggedized tablet and a 3-D GPS pen that can trace the damage on the plane and upload it right onto a 3-D model.” The NGRAIN system proved so popular with the F-35 that it’s now being used on older F-22s as well.

SELF-TEACHING: Every time a technician uploads data about one F-35, that data becomes available to every other technician. Better yet, all that data gets pooled, creating a self-learning system that can highlight where and when future trouble is likely to arise

ACCURATE: To work for the F-35, the NGRAIN models had to be accurate down to the millimetre. That meant the company had to considerably rework its existing technology, which had previously been used to run training simulators for large oil field equipment—which never required that kind of detail.

COMPACT: The original 3-D models of the F-35 were gigantic in computer terms, far too large to fit on a portable tablet. One of NGRAIN’s great breakthroughs was to find a way to crunch those models down to a usable size without sacrificing any accuracy.