Mr (or Miss) Roboto Gets a Job Inspecting Aircraft
Aviation maintenance has always faced tight schedules, along with the added pressure to reduce costs in order to survive. One of the more interesting mechanisms to enter the market is self-directed robots which support visual inspections and non-destructive testing (NDT) procedures of an aircraft fuselage. The increasing use of robots to speed up safety inspections and maintenance tasks is a welcome development, as well as being part of the ever-increasing trend towards greater automation. This addresses the need for cost reductions and decreased service times, but should help with the shortage of trained aircraft maintenance staff.
Different companies are taking various types of approaches for certain tasks, some of which are following the lead from other industries.
Researchers from the ZHAW School of Engineering in Zurich, Switzerland, have recently created a robot system that can precisely sandblast cornstarch onto airplanes to gently remove existing paint. The initial principle behind the idea was developed by a South African conglomerate named Sappi. Basically, pressurized air is used to blast cornstarch onto painted surfaces, and this method requires a constant jet speed from a certain distance from the surface, which creates a need for a precision robotized system. Currently, this is a manually-intensive and time-consuming process which involves the use of hand grinders and/or chemicals, so this approach will be quite welcome by the industry.
This is not a fully automated solution since a technician uses a tablet to guide the robot, although the robot autonomously handles the orientation, distance of the jet from the surface and the speed. The robot is able to handle this and remove the paintwork while not damaging the surface beneath it. This robot is used as a type of ‘smart tool’, and negates the need for chemicals, further making it an attractive proposition.
ZHAW has completed its testing, and Air France is now testing it for possible deployment.
Drones are already used in various types of inspections for many different industries and are becoming the norm (for power line inspections, flood and wildfire management, law enforcement, etc.) and in the past few years, have been used in aircraft inspections.
One example of this is from EasyJet and a British unmanned-aircraft company named Blue Bear Systems Research. Their collaboration began back in 2015 when they first used a drone to inspecting an Airbus A320 airliner inside a hangar. This drone utilized enclosed rotors to minimize any chance of damage to the aircraft or its surroundings. Over the next few years, Blue Bear and its technology partner, Output42, ended up forming a new venture, MRO Drone Ltd, to provide specialized drones for handling visual inspections for lightning strike, hail, and other damage.
‘Rapid’ is the product name and it utilizes a commercial-off-the-shelf drone with its proprietary system which integrates 3D scanning with software to analyze the results and automate the process of damage detection. The drone glides around on a predetermined route scanning an aircraft and identifying potential damage for further inspection. This speeds up inspections, with a reported time of ~2 hours when using Rapid, as compared to 6 hours manually, and also provides customers with a more consistent inspection result and potentially fewer errors.
This product was developed to require minimal training by its customers, and the software also tracks previous inspection records (you enter in the aircraft registration data and other input to setup the inspection) to help with the whole process. Hanger information needs to be preset, in order to guide the drone around safely.
A competing drone system is offered by Donecle (based in Toulouse, France) is already in use at Air France/KLM E&M and a number of other airlines. This firm offers either a single UAV or a swarm of UAVs to visually inspect airliners with high-resolution cameras, and uses a proprietary laser technology which enables precise positioning of the drones. They seem to have a similar offering as compared to Blue Bear Systems, but take a different approach with their proprietary drones, and the use of a swarm to reduce inspection time. A single drone is enough for a small airplane and up to six drones could be used for an Airbus A380.
The last one that we will mention here is Luftronix, which is a New Jersey-based drone and software company. They have similar capabilities to the first two companies mentioned earlier, but claim that their drone’s ability to fly autonomously is what sets them apart from other drone inspection systems. This means inspections can be done without a network connection and without the drone being “tethered” to the inspector. At their Cape May, NJ demonstration center, aircraft inspection drones are being tested using a De Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou large-scale cargo plane leased by the county. The company has a highly precise positioning system which allows the drones to autonomously manage their flight paths and capture accurate location information, and claim to be able to scan most commercial aircraft in less than 30 minutes. According to the company, it is possible for drone-enabled inspections to be self-initiated each time an aircraft lands.
Viva la innovation.
Engine Inspections and Repairs
In 2017, GE Aviation acquired UK-based OC Robotics, a manufacturer of snake-arm robots, with the stated intent of growing its internal robotics capabilities. The U.S. engine manufacturer noted the acquisition’s potential for improving its service capabilities, including component repair development and the efficiency of its on-wing support team in engine inspections and repairs. The OC Robotics technologies operate particularly well in tight spaces, which will support new procedures for on-wing repairs of engines. GE also expects to expand on its service and product offerings with this new set of technical capabilities.
“OC Robotics will play an important role in how we service our customers’ engines,” said Jean Lydon-Rodgers, vice president and general manager of GE Aviation’s Services organization, in a recent press release. “This acquisition will expand our component repair development capabilities and increase the efficiency of the On Wing Support team as they perform inspections and repairs on our customers’ engines.”
OC Robotics has previously worked together with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, USA, to design and develop a non-destructive inspection (NDI) snake-arm robot system for confined and difficult-to-access areas. This project was a continuation of earlier AFRL efforts to study robotic manipulation of NDI probes including the Surgical Non-Destructive Evaluation project (SuNDE). The intent of the project is to develop new tools and systems to increase the availability of both legacy and forthcoming aircraft fleets by enabling more inspections to be performed with minimal disassembly or disturbance of structures.
Aircraft Inspection via Crawling Robots
One of the earlier announcements several years ago was for MOFRI (the crawling aerospace inspection robot) from Lufthansa Technik and their collaboration partners, the Institute of Aircraft Production Technology (IFPT) at Hamburg University of Technology and industrial partners Edevis GmbH and IFF GmbH. MORFI weighs about 165 pounds and slides across the aircraft fuselage on specialized feet containing vacuum pads, assisting its human overlord (for now… just wait until the robot uprising…) with inspections and material checks of metallic aircraft fuselage structures.
While no recent news releases have been made on this project, Lufthansa Technik has more recently unveiled a robot that can scan and fix a composite plane’s outer layer tiles, and that is able to operate from various odd angles and to recognize free-form 3D surfaces. This newer robot is part of the CAIRE project (Composite Adaptable Inspection and Repair) which also includes Airbus, among others.
The goal of the project is to find ways to enhance the technology of a stationary scarf-joining robot to allow for mobile repairs, thus saving time and cost. Such aircraft outer layers are typically composed of many tiles of fiber-reinforced composite material joined up using the scarf, or scarph, method of joinery.
In order to create a scarf joint, the robot is positioned on a device attached to the component using suction cups. The controlling software provides the robot with the capability to process 1,000 x 1,000 millimeter surfaces and thick FRC structures such as wing connection areas. To do so, it first scans the damage, ascertains the surface and then calculates both the form of the scarf joint and the milling path before cutting out the damaged material. Next, it skillfully cuts to size the repair layers which are then inserted into the 3D scarfing surface created by the robot. Finally, the freshly inserted part is then manually glued to the fuselage and then cured. At the moment, this appears not to be a fully automated process, but, this is a major step forward to perform repairs in a much faster way.
Lufthansa Technik plans on having these stationary systems operating by fall 2018 for use in servicing structural components. They are also moving forward with industrializing the mobile system.
One airline which was also an early pioneer with crawling robots is Air New Zealand. In 2016, they teamed with New Zealand-based Invert Robotics to use the company’s mobile climbing robots for enhancing aircraft maintenance inspections. The robots were firstly designed for use in the dairy industry and were used for remote-controlled inspections to identify damage inside milk tanks (caused by lightning, and I assume, really mad tall cows…). According to Air New Zealand Chief Operations Officer Bruce Parton the airline first started to explore the use of robotics after recognizing the shape of a milk tank closely resembles an aircraft fuselage.
The results of early trials were successful, and now Invert Robotics is partnering with SR Technics to use their mobile climbing robots for automated aircraft maintenance inspections. As with the other robots mentioned in this article, SR Technics claims that these automated inspections can help reduce an aircraft’s inspection time from hours to minutes, providing greater efficiency and reduced costs for its customers. SR Technics expects to utilize the robots for inspections of an aircraft fuselage, wings, control surfaces, and stabilizers. The company plans to incorporate the inspections gradually into its maintenance operations by Q2 2018, with plans to expand them over time. Invert Robotics also plans to eventually automate certain types of inspections, and states that several other airlines and industry players are currently assessing this technology for their use.
Where is This Headed?
The widespread use of robotics in MRO applications is still rather rare, but the way forward is rather clear. MRO has faced a skilled labor shortage for some time, and the relentless surge of artificial intelligence and greater automation sweeping all facets of aviation will drive the industry forward into robotics, and specifically autonomous robotics.
The fact that OEMs have been moving into the aftermarket seeking new revenue streams will force many MROs to adapt to new methods and tools in order to remain competitive. Larger OEMs have been using robots in their manufacturing facilities for years, and you can expect that they will adapt some of this for repair and inspection needs of components or systems that they know.
Many smaller MRO operations will be challenged to compete and may be forced in teaming with others in order to pool resources in order to obtain robots and other new technologies to survive. None of this will happen quickly, so if you manage an aircraft maintenance organization, begin looking into some of the robots mentioned here and start getting your staff trained on integrating more automated technology into your service offerings. Your future robot overlord may appreciate it.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.