AFRL demos advanced robotics for aerospace manufacturing

  • Published
  • By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio –  Engineers from the Manufacturing Technologies Division, Air Force Research Laboratory, held a recent successful demonstration of the advanced capabilities of the Advanced Automation for Agile Aerospace Applications (A5) Robotic System at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. 

The 22,000 pound A5 robotic system is the first multi-purpose robot designed for use on the aerospace factory floor capable of using real-time sensor feedback to conduct work in a localized environment. By capitalizing on advancements in man-machine interfacing technologies, the A5 robot is anticipated to cut depot maintenance times for aircraft coating removal up to 50 percent, saving time and money over the lifecycle of an a platform.

“Robots have been used for a long time in factories and in the automotive industry, however, there has been limited use in the aerospace engineering area,” said Rick Meyers, an Automation and Robotics Program Manager at the AFRL. “Typically, robotic arms are bolted into place and perform repetitive actions as a platform moves down a line. The A5 robot is mounted on a mobile platform that allows it to move about an aircraft. A human operator interfaces with the onboard computer, and the robot plans and completes the manual tasks.”

Unique to the A5 is the ability for it to use advanced sensors to conduct real-time path planning and analysis as it moves about an aircraft.  Sensor data is transmitted to an onboard computer that processes the information and provides an optimized path plan for maintenance activity to an operator for confirmation. This processing ability enables A5 to adapt to multiple platforms without the need for system reprogramming, which adds time and cost to maintenance efforts.

“One depot may spend upwards of 40,000 labor hours or more on just sanding and paint removal activities. This is labor intensive, exhausting and repetitive work. Robots are suited for these types of repetitive tasks, freeing the maintainers to partner with the machines as operators versus laborers. Robotics provide an opportunity for humans and machines to team up to help meet an Air Force need,” said Meyers.

The A5 robot program is nearing the end of its Phase I effort, which focused on developing an adaptive robotic sanding capability for the C-17. Following the successful demonstration on a mock-up aircraft during the recent San Antonio event, the A5 system will be tested on an actual C-17 at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Fall, 2018.

The AFRL team is still in the process of defining A5’s next application, though they are considering pursuing development efforts focused on nondestructive inspection or composite repair. In any case, the robotic expertise developed over the course of this project combined with the ability to leverage cutting edge technology for the warfighter is a big step towards realizing the AFRL vision for advanced robotics in the defense environment.

“The future aerospace manufacturing environment will feature flexible and reconfigurable robotic systems that work in close proximity with the human workforce,” said Meyers. “The A5 robot demonstration is an initial step towards enabling this vision to be commonplace in the defense manufacturing domain.”