Team Of Researchers, Aerospace Manufacturers To Adapt Industrial Robots For U.S. Air Force

An illustration depicts how a robotic arm commonly used in advanced manufacturing can be adapted to perform multiple functions such as under-wing sanding or composite repair on military aircraft. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

December 14, 2016 – A team from National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), The Boeing Company, and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) were awarded a $6.7 million contract to help the U.S. Air Force develop software and technology to make advanced robotics reusable for a variety of aerospace manufacturing and maintenance processes.

NCDMM will manage the four-year program. Boeing will provide process development and tooling expertise. SwRI will develop software using the open-source Robot Operating System Industrial (ROS-I) platform and will integrate all the subsystems on a large mobile manipulator robotic platform.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) challenged the team to develop and demonstrate a mobile multi-process robotic solution through the Advanced Automation for Agile Aerospace Applications (A5) program.

“One of our primary goals is to promote the adaptability and flexibility of robotic systems,” said Rick Meyers, program manager in Automation and Robotics at the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. “This team will help to develop technology that enables the same system to be used in many different applications – including manufacturing and sustainment operations.”

Added Paul Hvass, a program manager in SwRI’s Manufacturing Technologies Department, “We want to make it easier to use a piece of machinery to transition from one manufacturing or maintenance task to another quickly and cost efficiently, without needing engineering or programming rework between tasks.”

“We are excited to move forward with this program,” said Jim Fisher, director of operations at NCDMM. “The Air Force has put forth an ambitious and compelling challenge, and the NCDMM, along with our project partners, anticipates successful demonstration of capabilities that meet or exceed the AFRL expectations.”

Boeing’s technology center in South Carolina will provide equipment focused on agile automation development including mobile robotic platforms, robotic manipulators, machine shop, and production aircraft materials for development and testing.

“Many operations in aerospace production and sustainment are good candidates for automation to increase safety, productivity, and quality,” said Max Amin-Javaheri, a director for Boeing Research and Technology’s Advanced Production and Inspection group. “A5 will expand opportunities for lower rate production environments and sustainment operations – areas that are typically very challenging to economically automate.”

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 aims to upend that paradigm using ROS-Industrial to develop flexible technology that can be used across different manufacturing processes and environments. Phase I will develop adaptive robotic capabilities in aircraft sanding. Phase II will apply those capabilities to composite aircraft repair, and Phase III will develop nondestructive capabilities using the same mobile platform.

“Using ROS-Industrial, we can dramatically reduce the amount of manual programming and intervention needed to implement advanced automation,” Hvass said.

As the primary framework, ROS-Industrial allows the team to quickly integrate the advanced capabilities of ROS with industrial hardware to enable robotic programs that perceive the aircraft, automatically plan tasks and associated robot motion, and reliably execute those plans. SwRI maintains the ROS-Industrial software repository and manages the ROS-Industrial Consortium with over 40 members in academia and industry-member groups around the world.

“The A5 program will draw upon the vast resources and ingenuity of the ROS community,” said Clay Flannigan, an assistant director in SwRI’s Manufacturing Technologies Department. “It is a diverse group of experts who are advancing secure and open-source robotics in academia and industry.”