DAYTON, OH—Engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) here recently developed a robot for aerospace manufacturing applications. The machine uses advanced sensors to conduct real-time path planning and analysis as it moves around the outside of an aircraft.

The first deployment of the Advanced Automation for Agile Aerospace Applications (A5) robotic system will be for coating removal applications, such as sanding the surface of a C-17 cargo plane.

The A5 robot is mounted on a mobile platform that allows it to move about an aircraft. As  a human operator interfaces with the onboard computer; the robot plans and completes the manual tasks.

“[While] robots have been used for a long time in factories and in the automotive industry, there has been limited use in the aerospace engineering area,” says Rick Meyers, AFRL automation and robotics program manager. “Typically, robotic arms are bolted into place and perform repetitive actions as a platform moves down a line.

“[In our A5 system], 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,” explains Meyers. “This processing ability enables [the robot] to adapt to multiple platforms without the need for system reprogramming, which adds time and cost to maintenance efforts.

“One [air force facility] may spend upwards of 40,000 labor hours or more on just sanding and paint removal activities,” Meyers points out. “This is labor intensive, exhausting and repetitive work. Robots are suited for these types of tasks, freeing [humans] to partner with the machines.

“[Our engineers are] still in the process of defining A5’s next application, [but they may focus on] nondestructive inspection or composite repair,” says Meyers. “In any case, the robotic expertise developed over the course of this project, combined with the ability to leverage cutting-edge technology, is a big step toward realizing [our] vision for advanced robotics in the defense sector.

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