One of the US Air Force’s most important and time-consuming tasks is to keep its aircraft fleet in good condition and running. With some aircraft, such as the B-2 Bomber and F-22 Raptor, this involves keeping the radar absorbent layer clean and smooth.
In twin-engine F-22s, maintaining the coating, which helps increase its stealth and survivability, is particularly challenging on the air intake ducts. The inlets ensure smooth airflow to the engines despite turbulent air coming from the ducts from several directions. Small objects, maybe even cold, sucked into the engine at high speed can cause some scratches in the inlet surface finish.
To keep the aircraft performing at its best, the Air Force periodically renews the ducts, removing resurfacing paint and applying a fresh coat. Since 2016, the Air Force has been using Aerobotix robots to handle these routine work.
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Aerobotix received funding from the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer Programs to develop its automated paint system. In the F-22, it can restore performance paint on ductwork much more quickly, cost-efficiently, and accurately than doing it manually.
The F-22’s Automated Paint System uses two robots operating at the front and rear ends of the channels to sand and spray paint. Three of these systems are installed in the F-22 warehouse at the headquarters of the Ogden Air Logistics complex at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
“Our robotic technology can delineate air ducts using only about 300 man-hours, rather than the 1,600 hours it takes manually,” says project manager Bret Benvenuti, Aerobotix’s chief robotics engineer. “This is a labor savings of about 80%, so it really helps solve the challenge of getting these planes back into service faster. We estimate that since 2016, the Air Force has helped us save $8.8 million, $220,000 per aircraft, in maintenance costs.
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Robots are also improving accuracy and quality control, giving the refurbished F-22s a low-radar signature.
“Manually repainting entrances requires maintenance workers to wear protective suits and respirators and spend hundreds of hours crawling on their hands and knees inside,” says project leader Nathan Morgan, Aerobotix field engineer. “Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for workers to manually apply paint at consistent speeds and thicknesses. Robots achieve better results while reducing the amount of rework required and the number of worker injuries.”
Bots also save money on materials. For example, they spray on more paint before the pot expires, which greatly reduces waste. Highly engineered coatings cost about $1,000 per gallon, and more efficient use can save about $40,000 per aircraft, according to Aerobotix.
Aerobotix engineers recently added the ability to adjust spray paths so the robots can more efficiently handle aircraft that need only the bypass bulkhead areas for entrances to repaint, or to spray only the outside of the entrance’s front outer lip. “Placing the lip while the rear robot sprays the entrances saves two to three days of labour,” Benvenuti explains.
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Aerobotix has also added a gauge that uses Terahertz technology to measure the thickness of the final coating. “It measures all Quality Score faster and more accurately than has been done in the past,” he says.
The company is now looking to adapt the robots to simultaneously fit other external parts of the plane, including China, which will save even more labor.
Aerobotix refurbished its first F-22 in 2016, just finished its fortieth session and is on track to regain number 50 by early 2023. The company has also developed similar automated paint systems for the F/A-18E and F/A- 18F Super Hornets and F-35 Lightning IIs.
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