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Robot Recruits Enlist in Paint Stripping

Friday, November 30, 2012

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Robots wielding high-powered lasers may hold the future of U.S. military coatings removal in their hot little circuits.

The Navy got into the high-tech paint stripping act years ago, with a semi-automated system developed by the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now, Air Force researchers are deep into even more sophisticated technology, working with the NREC and a private company to develop a robotic system that uses lasers to remove coatings from fighter and cargo aircraft.

2-Year Project

The current project teams up the Air Force Research Laboratory and Ogden Air Logistics Center 309 AMXG with the NREC and Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC) of Johnstown, PA.

Advanced Robotic Laser Coating Removal System
Carnegie Mellon University
The Advanced Robotic Laser Coating Removal System is being deployed in a two-year demonstration project at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The system uses a continuous wave laser to strip coatings from aircraft.

In a two-year project sponsored by the National Defense Center for Energy and Environment, CTC will build six autonomous mobile robots, each with a laser coating remover, and deploy them to work in teams to remove paint and other coatings from aircraft at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah.

The demonstration at Hill AFB is the latest phase of development for the so-called Advanced Robotic Laser Coating Removal System. Earlier, CTC and NREC developed a prototype of the robot, which is undergoing testing at CTC’s facilities.

How it Works

CTC’s laser coating remover uses a continuous wave laser to strip paint and other coatings from aircraft, according to NREC.

The laser replaces the abrasives and chemical removers used in traditional coating removal processes, which generate significant hazardous waste and air emissions.

The laser can even selectively remove coatings, NREC says. A custom HEPA system safely collects debris as it is removed from the aircraft.

NREC says the robots make it possible “to automate and precisely control the stripping process, while protecting workers’ eyes from hazardous laser light.”

Working in teams, the robots “keep the laser beam properly angled against the aircraft skin, adjusting to the shape of each area of the airframe,” according to NREC.

The robots also control the speed of the beam over the surface—slow enough to ensure complete stripping, but moving enough to prevent overheating of the aircraft surface.

Saving Labor, Risk, Waste

Paint removal has always been a laborious, time-consuming and dirty staple of normal depot maintenance for military aircraft.

Advanced Robotic Laser Coating Removal System
National Robotics Engineering Center

The project will build six autonomous mobile robots, each with a laser coating remover.  Areas can be "virtually" masked and robots directed to skip areas that should not be stripped.

The robotic paint stripper system “promises to be environmentally superior to traditional methods while simultaneously reducing processing time, decreasing workload and supporting 24/7 operations at Air Logistics Centers,” NREC reports.

Said Jim Arthur, CTC principal process engineer and project manager: “Automated laser de-coating is expected to significantly reduce labor, waste volume, environmental risk, and overall cost."

The autonomous mobile robots built at the NREC under the direction of Tony Stentz, principal investigator and NREC director, make extensive use of commercial, off-the-shelf parts to reduce costs, simplify maintenance and make future upgrades easier, researchers said.

Teamwork and Safety

“A team of robots wielding laser paint strippers can work cooperatively to quickly and efficiently remove paint and coatings from aircraft,” said Stuart Lawrence, the NREC program manager.

Two robots might be used for a fighter, while four might be used for a large cargo plane. The system generates stripping plans based on the type of aircraft.

Moreover, the robots’ advanced sensors also detect, classify and record the condition of the aircraft surfaces as stripping proceeds, allowing the system to dynamically update the plan while the work is under way, officials said.

The system even eliminates manual masking of areas that should not be stripped. The system can “virtually mask” these areas, and the robot will avoid them.

Future applications for ARLCRS could include applying paint and coatings, inspecting aircraft, and performing basic maintenance and repair tasks.

Naval Bots

The Navy has long pursued high-tech options to manual coatings removal, which creates vast quantities of toxic waste and toxic airborne dust.

Several years ago, NREC designed, built and tested the centerpiece of a semi-automated paint removal system that is now in everyday use and available for commercial sale by Chariot Robotics, LLC.

NREC Envirobot System
National Robotics Engineering Center

Human supervisors monitor the paint-stripping sailor of tomorrow. The Navy coating removal system, commercialized under the name Envirobot, worked on the hull of the USS Jamestown in Portugal.

Researchers call the wireless joystick-controlled Envirobot “the world's most technologically advanced system for removing paint and coatings from steel surfaces.”

The system uses air gap magnets to glide across the sides and bottoms of ship hulls, storage tanks and other steel structures, reaching speeds of up to 51 cm/sec (20 in/sec). Ultra-high-pressure water jets  (55,000 psi) remove the paint to bare metal while a vacuum and EPA-approved filtration system recover wastewater and debris.

The system can remove coatings at a rate of 500 to 3000 square feet per hour, depending on the number of layers.

A Semi-Autonomous Robot for Stripping Paint from Large Vessels,” published in 2003, describes that technology in detail.

Unleashing Lasers

The Naval Shipbuilding Research Program is also pursuing a new coating removal tack: laser ablation technology. NSRP is underwriting a $150,000 study of the technology by General Lasertronics Corp., of San Jose, CA.

General Lasertronics laser ablation technologyGeneral Lasertronics laser ablation
General Lasertronics Corp.

The Navy is also pursuing laser ablation coating removal being developed by General Lasertronics Corp. At left, the system goes to work on an H-53 helicopter rotor blade; at right, an A-10 wing tank flange shows the system's results.

The company manufactures systems that use pulsed lasers to strip coatings and prepare surfaces and boasts the “world’s only laser ablation system in production use on flight-critical surfaces.”


Tagged categories: Government contracts; Paint and coatings removal; U.S. Navy; UHP waterjetting

Comment from Catherine Brooks, (11/30/2012, 9:46 AM)

I think this is a good example of how automation can dramatically reduce human health and safety risks. Robots doing the paint removal and having more easily monitored and contained methods for paint waste takes human error out of the process. Although it will be a long time before robots can be used outside a confined area such as an airplane hanger, there is hope on the horizon to eliminate human risk to toxic paint removal.

Comment from Car F., (11/30/2012, 10:16 AM)

I think this is a good example of how automation can dramatically help to reduce employment. Robots doing the paint removal and having more easily monitored and contained methods for paint waste takes good paying jobs out of the process and increases unemployment and profit margins. Although it will be a long time before robots can be used to substitute taxpayers – whose contributions finances the Armed Forces - there is hope on the horizon to eliminate humans from the entire production process and declare them redundant.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (11/30/2012, 11:02 AM)

Come now, know "better, faster, cheaper" has been the mantra of western industry since Henry Ford brought in that revolutionary idea of a production line for automobiles. If industry can replace a bunch of people masking then stripping a plane, then cleaning up the mess afterwards with a few "set and forget" robots that leave no mess, work 24/7 and tell you where the plane might need some additional work....well, you know it won't take long for the robots to be doing the work. Just leaves more manpower to do the jobs "in the wild" that the robots can't.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (12/3/2012, 8:53 AM)

How about the high skilled, high paying jobs to manufacture, maintain and sell these units. and you still have to clean inaccessible areas conventionally and paint the surfaces, unless you have robots for that also. I don't think you will have one net lost job.

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