Mobile robots support airplane manufacturers

Apr 02, 2014 by José Saenz
The new assistant for the aviation industry, based on “omniRob,” a mobile robot by KUKA. Credit: KUKA

In production facilities, robots, and people will soon be working side-by-side. A new mobile assistant is intended to support technicians in the airplane manufacturing industry when applying sealant, measuring, and testing – without putting them at risk.

The robots move at walking speed along airplane components; in doing so, it applies a sealant against corrosion in equal measure. The assistant is surrounded by technical workers who install, drill, and test. Admittedly this scenario is still a glimpse of the future – but in just a few years, it should be reality for the aerospace . In the EU project known as VALERI – short for Validation of Advanced, Collaborative Robotics for Industrial Applications – a European consortium is engineering a that operates autonomously and moves independently through a production hall, and side-by-side with the engineers and technicians. It is not intended to replace the technician, but instead relieve them of stressful and monotonous duties and take over inspection duties. Airbus DS, FACC AG, IDPSA, Prodintec are involved with the plan, as well as KUKA Laboratories GmbH and Profactor GmbH. The management of this EU project is in the hands of the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg. It is funded by a grant of approximately EUR 3.6 million.

"When we assemble fuselage elements, large quantities of sealant have to be applied to the joints. Mobile robots can take over this work quite well," says José Saenz, head of project at IFF and general coordinator of VALERI. Stationary robots are not suited for the assembly of unwieldy airplane components several meters in length that are worked on over a period of up to two weeks inside one single facility. "For example, the elements of an airplane fuselage are too large for them to be adapted to a conventional production robot. You cannot rotate or turn them so that the system can work on them. So, it has to be the other way around. The robot drives to the desired location in the airplane," say Saenz. Mobile systems are flexible, can be used at various stations, can move forward at various speeds, and are capable of performing delivery services – for example, they could retrieve tools for the technicians from a warehouse.

Touch-sensitive skin prevents collisions

The collaboration between people and equipment only works if collisions can be eliminated or kept to a minimum allowable level. The individual work must be absolutely certain in an environment in which automated assistants are constantly crossing paths with him or her. To guarantee one hundred percent security, Saenz and his team of colleagues outfitted the mobile platform with cameras and touch-sensitive interfaces that possess a cushioning layer. These sensors can be attached to the robot like an artificial skin. Using this technology – in combination with other optical sensors – unintended collisions are sensed and prevented. If a contact occurs again, then the robot stops or moves into another direction.

The mobile colleague is based on a robot from KUKA, the "omniRob." Located on a drivable platform is a multi-extension grip arm; experts call it the manipulator. The complete system possesses 12 degrees of freedom. That means it can move not only forward, backward, up and down, but also move sideways and rotate. "The unique thing about our system is the coordinated movement of all degrees of freedom. While the platform is driving, the manipulator is moving at the same time. There has not yet been a system of this kind with such a large action radius, until now," explains Saenz.

First test drive at year-end

The prototype is scheduled to take its first test drive by the end of this year. Tests under real life conditions are scheduled for October 2015: In a pilot program by Airbus DS, the mobile assistant must move autonomously, identify real airplane elements and solve tasks, without putting people at risk. "These mobile robots will change production processes in the aviation industry by accelerating production processes, making them more flexible, and by relieving technicians of burdensome tasks. With these robots, we are getting one step closer to the factory of the future," says Saenz. These mobile helpers can also help in other industries such as shipbuilding or the production of wind turbines.

Explore further: Posture affects infants' capacity to identify objects, study finds

Related Stories

Robots get an artificial skin

Jul 01, 2010

Robots are breaking barriers: Long banished behind steel barriers, they are entering new fields of application such as the manufacturing, household and healthcare sectors. The requisite safety can be provided ...

Helping robots learn to walk

Feb 28, 2014

Fully autonomous robots could transform the way we live, but so far such machines remain beyond the reach of our most advanced technologies. Existing robots are generally limited to performing simple, well-structured ...

Human arm sensors make robot smarter (w/ Video)

Jan 16, 2014

Using arm sensors that can "read" a person's muscle movements, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have created a control system that makes robots more intelligent. The sensors send information to ...

Recommended for you

A robot prepared for self-awareness

11 hours ago

A year ago, researchers at Bielefeld University showed that their software endowed the walking robot Hector with a simple form of consciousness. Their new research goes one step forward: they have now developed ...

Future US Navy: Robotic sub-hunters, deepsea pods

Mar 28, 2015

The robotic revolution that transformed warfare in the skies will soon extend to the deep sea, with underwater spy "satellites," drone-launching pods on the ocean floor and unmanned ships hunting submarines.

Festo has BionicANTs communicating by the rules for tasks

Mar 27, 2015

Germany-based automation company Festo, focused on technologies for tasks, turns to nature for inspiration, trying to take the cues from how nature performs tasks so efficiently. "Whether it's energy efficiency, ...

Virtual robotization for human limbs

Mar 26, 2015

Recent advances in computer gaming technology allow for an increasingly immersive gaming experience. Gesture input devices, for example, synchronise a player's actions with the character on the screen. Entertainment ...

Robots on reins could be the 'eyes' of firefighters

Mar 25, 2015

Researchers at King's College London have developed revolutionary reins that enable robots to act like guide dogs, which could enable that firefighters moving through smoke-filled buildings could save vital ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.