August 31, 2022
Aerobotix, an AS9100-certified FANUC robotics integrator, has announced it supported the 40th restoration of air inlet ducts on F-22 Raptor aircraft, as part of a maintenance contract with the U.S. Air Force. The company’s automated painting system gets aircraft back in the sky 80% faster, and has saved the Air Force $8.8 million since 2016.
With funding from the Air Force’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, Aerobotix developed an automated painting system that restores the performance coatings on F-22 air inlet ducts far more quickly, cost-efficiently and accurately than manual painting. The company said it is on track to restore its 50th F-22 by early 2023.
“Our robotic technology can paint these units using only about 300 hours of labor, rather than 1,600 hours,” said Bret Benvenuti, a senior robotics engineer at Aerobotix and project manager. “That’s a labor saving of around 80%, so it really solves the challenges of getting these aircraft back into service quicker. We estimate that since 2016, we’ve helped the Air Force save $8.8 million – $220,000 per aircraft – in maintenance costs.”
The company explained that on jet aircraft, inlets ensure smooth airflow into engines despite turbulent air coming at the ducts from multiple directions. The automated painting solution for inlet duct maintenance not only achieves labor savings, but it also improves accuracy and quality control, giving F-22 aircraft a better performance signature against radar. The automated system can also apply more coating before the material’s pot life expires, reducing waste. The highly engineered coatings cost around $1,000 per gallon, and more efficient use can save about $40,000 per aircraft.
“When you recoat jet-engine inlets manually, it requires maintenance workers to wear protective suits and respirators and spend hundreds of hours crawling around on their hands and knees inside the inlet,” said Nathan Morgan, an Aerobotix field engineer and project lead. “Under those conditions, it’s nearly impossible for workers to manually apply the coatings at consistent speeds and thickness. Our robots achieve better results while also curbing the number of worker injuries.”
The Aerobotix system uses two robots that work at the forward and aft ends of the ducts to sand and spray-coat them. Three automated systems have been installed at the F-22 Depot at the headquarters of the Ogden Air Logistics Complex at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
Recent system upgrades include adjustable spray paths to accommodate aircraft that need only the bypass screen areas of the inlets to be recoated, or to spray the exterior of the inlets’ forward outer lip area, Aerobotix said. Coating the lip area while the aft robot is spraying the inlets saves between two and three days in labor. Aerobotix said it is now looking to also use the robots to simultaneously coat other exterior sections of the aircraft, including chines and tines, which will achieve further labor savings. In addition, Aerobotix has integrated a Terahertz measurement device that delivers efficiency and quality improvements.
Aerobotix has also developed similar automated painting systems for coating the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet and F-35 Lightning II. Those aircraft are featured in the blockbuster movie “Top Gun: Maverick.”
“These are some of the Air Force’s best fighter jets, and Aerobotix is proud that our technology is supporting the jets’ combat readiness by getting them back in the sky faster,” said Benvenuti. “When you see the aircraft flying overhead, it really gives you a sense of accomplishment.”
For more details on Aerobotix, visit the company’s website here.