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Future of Aircraft Inspection: Robotic Repair on the Runway

Aircraft Inspection

A team of researchers has successfully trialed a four-wheel robot capable of carrying out aircraft structural inspections. The robot, that was tested at Cranfield University, can stick to and move around the sides and underbelly of an aircraft. As it hopes to revolutionize and automate aircraft maintenance.

Aircraft maintenance is a time-consuming procedure that takes up about 200th of total operating costs, is typically done manually and it’s subject to human error.

Yet repair and examination operations might soon become automated. Thanks to the latest work carried out under the CompInnova project, a European scheme that focuses on rising technologies.

Promoted by the European Commission. The CompInnova initiative is funded by the EU’s H2020 Framework Programme and coordinated by UK-based Cranfield University together with four other partners.

Within this framework, experts participating in the initiative have recently developed a four-wheel robot capable of moving around the surface of a plane carrying structural examination.

With a bit more than a year left before its official release, the prototype robot, known as the Vortex robot, was successfully trialed on Cranfield University’s Boeing 737 aircraft in February.

Aircraft Inspection

Automating Aircraft Inspection

According to Joao Raposo, international project manager at Cranfield University, the idea of the project is to develop a comparative strategy for inspecting and repairing composite materials in aircraft. “The goal is to automatize as much as possible the parts (of maintenance procedures) that need the least technical skills”, he says.

The Vortex robot does just that. Equipped with force sensors that will measure adhesion and controlled motorized wheels. The machine uses intense suction to climb the surface of the aircraft to discover damaged composites.

The platform additionally features a variety of inspecting technologies that allow it to collect information on the state of the aircraft while moving around it.

Developers have additionally equipped it with an ultrasonic sensor. Allowing in-depth characterization of the types of damage the aircraft has – and infrared thermography.

“The idea is to have a first high-level aircraft inspection using the infrared thermography,” says Cranfield lecturer Luca Zanotti Fragonara, “and then we will use the robot again to inspect it in detail with the ultrasonic sensor.”

The technology will then allow forming a digital twin version of the aircraft registered in a database through which employees are going to be able to find and sort the damages.

Next Steps: Damage Repair & Optimized Laser Removal

Having successfully tested the aircraft inspection robot, the CompInnova team is currently working to finish the development of an autonomous version of the robot, known as a ‘manipulator’, with integrated repair capabilities.

Designed to examine planes undergoing long-term periodic checks, the manipulator is connected to the aircraft fuselage through suction caps, rather than wheels, that help cut back its power consumption.

Over the next few months, Cranfield’s partner the University of Patras is going to be working to optimize a laser removal procedure to install on the robot. Which, Zanotti Fragonara explains, can remove the damaged material layer by layer.

“It’s almost like a surgical operation on the aircraft,” he says. “It will allow the robot to isolate the materials from the composite parts that are damaged and apply a patch to fix the damage.”

According to the researchers, the ultimate goal is for the different robots to work together and make maintenance and inspection more efficient and quicker.

“Overall, you’ll have a digitalized model of the aircraft where you’ll be able to either continuously monitor the evolution of damage or, when necessary, operate and repair the damage.”

At this stage, human intervention is still quite vital when it involves repairing damaged composites. But, as Raposo puts it, “in the future, we hope that the robots will fully replace the need for human intervention.”