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Suction Vortex Robot for aircraft successfully trialed at Cranfield University

A prototype robot, developed as part of the CompInnova project, uses intense suction to climb around the outside of an aircraft to inspect it for damage, has successfully been trialed at Cranfield University.

The four-wheeled Vortex Robot was tested in field trials using Cranfield’s Boeing 737 and was able to stick to and move around the sides and underbelly of the aircraft.

Professor Iain Gray, director of Aerospace at Cranfield University and Principal Investigator of the project said: “There is an increasing use of composites throughout large and small aircraft structures. Developing new, efficient, modern ways to inspect those composites is a real key performance driver.”

Structural inspection of aircraft components is usually done manually, making it subject to human error, time-consuming and less cost-effective, with aircraft maintenance expenditure usually representing 20 percent of overall operating costs.

An autonomous version of the robot, equipped with sensors for inspection and tools for repair, is being developed by the project team and could carry a payload of around 9 kilograms, including ultrasonic and thermal imaging cameras to detect aircraft damage, and a laser which works to remove and repair any damages discovered.

Georgios Andrikopoulos, post-doctoral researcher at Lulea University of Technology, who is leading the development of the Vortex platform, said: “We successfully tested the capabilities of the robot prototype on all different surfaces of the airplane, even the transition beneath the wing and fuselage. This is really challenging to accomplish because the robot will have to support a big payload in relation to its size.”

The ultimate plan is for teams of robots to work collaboratively, improving speed and efficiency further.

The CompInnova project involves five partners from across Europe and has received funding from the European Union’s H2020 Framework Programme.

Photo credit: Cranfield University – Attendees at the CompInnova meeting in Patras, Greece.