AFRL Demos Advanced Multipurpose Robotics for Aerospace

The A5 robotic system will be capable of multiple maintenance and manufacturing techniques

The A5 can use advanced sensors to conduct real-time path planning and analysis as it moves about an aircraft. It 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 (Image source: USAF).

Engineers from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) Manufacturing Technologies Division successfully demonstrated the capabilities of a new multi-purpose maintenance and manufacturing robot at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Weighing in at 22,000 pounds, the Advanced Automation for Agile Aerospace Applications (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 a platform. The demonstration at the Southwest Research Institute consisted of the A5 system sanding represent sections of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, including a side fuselage curve and a flat underwing panel.

To provide flexibility, the A5 rides on AIRTRAX omni-directional wheels and utilizes a long reach six-axis robotic arm with an inclined rail that provides a seventh axis of motion. With this mobility, aircraft maintainers can bring the A5 to the work instead of the work to the A5. It also allows the system to be moved easily around an aircraft hangar to facilitate numerous operations and redeploy as needed.

A built-in dust extraction system removes hexavalent chrome particulates during sanding to improve the operating environment for workers.

Furthermore, by using sensors on the robot platform to scan and plan paths, the time and cost for an expert programmer to teach or program the A5 is all but eliminated. A built-in graphical user interface allows for operators on the floor to task the system with a simple point and click, wherein the A5 will drive up to any aircraft and – within minutes – scan the geometry, plan the work path, and begin sanding; so called “scan-plan-and go.”

System development

Traditional manufacturing automation tends to rely on purpose-built machines, typically dedicated to a specific aircraft or component. Those machines demand large initial capital outlays and significant operating expenses; adaptation is costly and innovation is slow. The A5 program began in late 2016 with the intent to make advanced robotics reusable for a variety of aerospace manufacturing and maintenance processes. “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 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.” 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 [based on cargo-sized aircraft like the C-17, Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and Lockheed C-5 Galaxy]. 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. To develop the software and technology for A5, AFRL is working with a team from National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), Boeing, and the Southwest Research Institute. While NCDMM is managing the four-year program, Boeing has provided process development and tooling expertise. The Southwest Research Institute, which is “one of the oldest and largest independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organizations in the United States,” developed software using the open-source Robot Operating System Industrial (ROS-I) platform and worked to integrate all the subsystems on the A5 platform.

What’s next for the A5?

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 demonstrated on an operational C-17 at Robins Air Force Base in fall later this year.

The development team is currently building in a vision system that will calculate the percent of sanding completed and tell the robot if further sanding is needed. This closed loop control will be functioning during the fall demonstration at Robins AFB.

The A5’s next application is still being discussed; however, at the time of this article, Phase II plans include pursuing nondestructive testing capabilities and Phase III will focus on composite aircraft repair.

“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.”

From the maintenance perspective, the A5 will lower sanding costs, reduce worker related injuries, and mitigate harmful hexavalent chrome exposure, and potentially accelerate aircraft processing. However, this step change regarding reduction in programming time will have an impact across the entire aerospace industry – both defense and commercial.