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Robots can handle aircraft inspection

Published: 21 January 2019

Successful field trials have proven that it is possible to have a robot climb on an airplane for inspection purposes. – We are one of the first in the world to succeed with this task, says George Nikolakopoulos, Professor of Robotics and Automation at Luleå University of Technology.

Luleå University of Technology is one of five partners in the project CompInnova, a prestigious Horizon 2020 project within the call Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). The objective of the project is to develop an innovative inspection methodology for any type of composite aircraft structures.

The mission for the research group of Automatic Control was both futuristic and very challenging; to design and develop the mechanical, electrical and software components for a Vortex Robot, a robot that, through optimized air suction, can climb on surfaces regardless of their curvature and inclination. Now, this difficult mission has almost been accomplished, during field trials on a full Boeing 737 at Cranfield University.

– We successfully tested the capabilities of the robot prototype on all different surfaces of the airplane, even the transition beneath the airplane wing and fuselage. This is really challenging to accomplish because the robot will have to support a big payload in relation to its size, says Georgios Andrikopoulos, Post Doc at Control Engineering Group and Technical Leader of the project.

– In the future, this payload will involve sensors and tools for inspection and repair, for example a thermal camera or a drill. The robot will have to remain attached on the surface, while using these components to perform intricate and force-intensive tasks. We also want the robot to perform efficiently from a power perspective, which creates exciting challenges from a control engineering point.

The future is autonomous

The developed Vortex Robot prototype can stay attached on any smooth surface and it can move in any orientation. The current aim is to make it fully autonomous and wireless, for supporting the goal of inspecting airplanes and identifying damages on their structures. Today, that procedure is done manually with a handheld sensor through so-called non-destructive testing; a person takes photographic or infrared scans of the fuselage, looking for defects. The inspections are time consuming and hence costly.

– Our vision is multi-robot inspection and repair of aircrafts. Imagine if we could send up multiple robots and let them work collaboratively, both time and money could be saved while potentially improving safety in the aerospace industry, says George Nikolakopoulos.

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