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Collaborative robot improves the way aircraft are tested

Testing aircraft is an enormous undertaking, requiring the coordination of multiple tasks that use many human and technical resources. Most of these tests are performed manually nowadays, with the help of computers and other non-standardised test equipment.

Transport and Mobility
Industrial Technologies

Airframe and component manufacturers of avionic parts such as consoles, interiors and control units are demanding more robotics, artificial vision and on-board testing for their processes. The EU-funded MAF project set out to introduce technological advances in aircraft manufacturing by means of two specific actions. “The first was to introduce a collaborative robot inside the cabin that autonomously performs tests on aircraft devices such as circuit breakers, levers, switches and diallers,” explains coordinator Manuel Gutiérrez. “The second was to standardise the software protocol so that all the machines involved speak the same language.”

Towards full automation of aircraft testing

To achieve its aims, MAF worked on reducing non-recurring costs, aircraft testing times and human utilisation. It also looked into improving the lead time and flexibility of current processes. “Implementing new concepts for the automation of quality and validation tests on aircraft through artificial vision and robotic collaboration will reduce errors while improving the conditions for technicians that usually work in small places inside aeroplanes,” notes Gutiérrez. Project partners designed a system that can be used inside the cabin: it replaces manual testing and carries out the testing procedure autonomously. “The most significant result was in delivering a simple machine without the need to exchange tools,” continues Gutiérrez. “It is assisted by a vision system to perform most of the tests more quickly and safely.” The gripper system is capable of adapting to multiple movements and is open to new implementations. The automatic vision-assisted calibration will speed up the robot installation procedure. It also has a voice system that improves the man-machine interaction and favours work settings involving collaborative robots.

More efficient quality validation of aircraft products

A key aspect was not to damage any controls while testing the cockpit. To accomplish this, the MAF team used 3D printing technology to design special fingers for the collaborative robot. “The innovation simplifies the execution and registration of tests, resulting in a higher quality and more cost-efficient product,” adds Gutiérrez. With respect to the data distribution service, it allows the system to be tested in both aircraft manufacturer and customer facilities. Even though MAF ended in early 2020, the consortium is considering ways to perform several tests in real cockpits. This will facilitate the continued analysis of results and the closing of potential gaps. “MAF optimised and improved the aircraft testing process, making it safer and more efficient,” concludes Gutiérrez. “It prevents human resources from working on monotonous and repetitive jobs, making better use of such resources to carry out tasks that robots aren’t capable of doing.” The automation of factories translates into a reduction in human error, thus saving costs, enhancing the work of qualified personnel and leading to superior quality products.

Keywords

MAF, aircraft, test, testing, robot, collaborative robot, cabin, cockpit, automation

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5 June 2019