In the highly competitive world of the aviation industry, aircraft time on the ground leaks money away from airline’s increasingly tight profit margins. Any technology that can help speed up safety inspections is a benefit not only to airlines but also the MRO companies that support them and consequently passengers who avoid delays.
Now a New Zealand company is revolutionising the way in which visual inspections are carried out on aircraft. Invert Robotics has designed an innovative new climbing robot that can adhere to a range of surfaces including aluminium, glass and carbon fibre, even when aircraft are wet or the surface requires upside down inspection.
Initially developed for the dairy/food and drink industry (a sector with lighter regulation) to inspect stainless steel tanks, the system uses a patented suction mechanism which enables it to crawl over almost every inch of an aircraft.
Neil Fletcher, managing director of Invert Robotics explains: “The aviation space was considered from the company's inception but by focusing on an area with lighter regulation around inspection and maintenance Invert Robotics was able to grow whilst learning and developing the technology. Once it reached sufficient maturity, it caught the attention of the MRO industry.”
Quicker than the eye
The system uses high definition cameras and sensors to assess surfaces for flaws such as pits and cracks, whilst also recording the location and size of these defects. Inspectors are fed real-time video during the inspection and are able to identify and classify faults often unable to be picked up by the human eye. A full repair assessment report can then be provided within 72 hours.
The crawling robot also eliminates many of the health and safety risks associated with traditional inspection methods as it means the operators, rather than working at height from access systems such as cherry pickers or towers, can remain safely on the ground while inspections are being carried out.
Fletcher continues: “The suction methodology in use on Invert's climbing robots is a world first and built specifically to climb on smooth (including curved) surfaces. Flat horizontal surfaces such as wings present no problem and the suction technology allows inspections with the robot upside down under a wing – an important consideration for close visual inspections at the height of wings on wide-bodied jets.
“The system is fully automated to enable operators to focus on the task at hand. Our robots can climb any smooth surface and can cross obstacles such as joins between panels, weld seams, edges of doors and other surface discontinuities. Our initial areas of focus are around difficult to access areas including crowns of fuselages and vertical stabilisers/rudders.”
As the robot tracks its way around the aircraft data is streamed in real-time to an engineer on the ground and/or recorded in industry standard formats. Operators can review all data in real-time during an inspection and following the survey an inspection a report is automatically generated that can then be sent wirelessly for review by other engineers, airlines or OEMs, for example.
The system is not only faster than manual inspection it is also safer with less opportunity for human error. It also frees up skilled aircraft engineer’s time so they can attend to more complex tasks rather than spending time on the labour-intensive and tedious manual maintenance inspection processes. In turn, this further reduces the time and cost of aircraft maintenance.
Fletcher affirms: “Compared with traditional methods, our system provides faster turnaround and minimises delays and disrupts from AOG (time airline is on the ground). The proper comparison is not always with a direct visual inspection – severe damage will usually be readily visible from the ground, but more often damage that requires closer inspection.
“Using our system with a 20-30-minute inspection time avoids aircraft being towed to hangars, or operators sourcing and setting up a cherry picker avoiding delays often of many hours. This flexibility of operation and time saving is enhanced by the ability to record and transmit the data for remote analysis at an MRO or OEM where the high definition images from the camera allow for much more accurate assessments of airworthiness.”
Further NDT inspections
Invert Robotics is now developing ultrasound and thermographic sensors to help further expand the capabilities of the crawling robot.
Fletcher says: “In the same way as our visual inspections have improved pre-existing workflows our ultrasonic thickness testing and thermographic inspection payloads now being tested will enable clients to work from the ground and deliver inspections utilising those technologies at matching or increased quality. The robot can be deployed to conduct testing with these established technologies on most parts of the aircraft where they are already manually applied. Enabling personnel to work from the ground not only reduces the overhead of using height access equipment it also unlocks the opportunity to perform work in adverse weather conditions, including at the gate, avoiding expensive delays.”
One MRO company that has teamed up with Invert Robotics to use the system is Zurich-based aircraft maintenance group SR Technics.
A spokesperson for the company comments: “We are constantly looking for ways to improve our services and reduce the costs to our customers in this highly competitive industry. Time savings mean our customers have their aircraft back in service sooner and for airlines that is a huge benefit. Being able to record the state of an aircraft proves the need for and quality of our work and allows more accurate scheduling of required maintenance. We are excited to be part of this innovation that we believe will have a significant effect in our industry.”
Invert Robotics believes its system has the potential to be used for many more aerospace inspection applications. As well as the food and drink industry, it is also being used in the pharmaceutical, and oil and gas industries. There is also potential to integrate other new technologies such as remote monitoring and virtual reality.
Fletcher concludes: “Numerous parties have attempted to build crawlers for planes. The benefits are too great to ignore and yet the problems associated have proven too great until now. This technology will undoubtedly find other uses and not only for civil and military aircraft.
“Our technology can most definitely integrate advances from other areas and we are following each of these very closely. However, internally we are very careful to walk before we run - we are trying to minimise the risk of investing in solutions that are before their time whilst ensuring that we are delivering a world leading solution.
“The opportunity to evolve from inside concave surfaces to outside convex surfaces have brought the aviation industry into clear focus as a significant market for Invert Robotics.”