A pan-European research team is developing a mobile robotic system that could assist engineers and technicians in aircraft assembly.
Part of an EU-funded project called VALERI (for Validation of Advanced, Collaborative Robotics for Industrial Applications), the robot would be able to carry out repetitive and monotonous tasks such as applying anti-corrosive sealants and assists with inspections.
“When we assemble fuselage elements, large quantities of sealant have to be applied to the joints, said José Saenz, the project’s coordinator, from the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF). “Mobile robots can take over this work quite well.”
Airbus, FACC, IDPSA, Prodintecs, Profactor and KUKA Laboratories are involved in the € 3.6m (£3m) project, which is expected to deliver the first unit for real-life testing by October 2015. During the test, to be performed in Airbus’s facilities, the robot will be required to 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, making it more flexible, and by relieving technicians of burdensome tasks,” said Saenz.
The mobility of the new robot is key as existing stationary platforms are not suitable for use in assembly of such large objects as airplanes.
“For example, the elements of an airplane fuselage are too large to be adapted for a conventional production robot,” said Seanz. “You cannot rotate or turn them so that the system can work on them. It has to be the other way around.”
The system could also assist to technicians and engineers working at the assembly by bringing tools from a warehouse.
To avoid collisions between human workers and the robotic system, the robot will be fitted with cameras and a touch-sensitive skin riddled with sensors. In case the robot collides with another object, it would immediately halt operations.
The Valeri robot is based on the KUKA platform, equipped with a dexterous arm with a manipulator at the end. The arm can move in all directions 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,” Saenz concluded.
The team believes the mobile robots will find wider use in other industries including shipbuilding or wind turbine production.