A prototype robot that uses intense suction to climb around the outside of aircraft and inspect them for damage has successfully been trialled at Cranfield University.

The four-wheeled Vortex Robot, developed as part of the CompInnova project, by the Swedish partner from Luleå University of Technology, 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 plane.

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

Professor Iain Gray, Director of Aerospace at Cranfield University and Coordinator 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.”

Georgios Andrikopoulos, post-doctoral researcher at Luleå 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.”

An autonomous version of the robot equipped with sensors for inspection is now being developed by the project team and should be able to carry a payload of around 9kg, including ultrasonic and thermal imaging cameras for detecting damage. The robotic solution will also include a version with tools to repair damage. The ultimate plan is to have a team of robots working collaboratively to further improve efficiency and the efficacy of inspection and repair.

The CompInnova project involves five partners from across Europe, namely the UK, Sweden and Greece, and has received funding from the European Commission under the scope of H2020 Framework Programme. The primary objective of the project is to research an autonomous inspection and repair solution for composite aircraft fuselages by February 2020.

Attendees of CompInnova meeting in Patras
Attendees at the CompInnova meeting in Patras, Greece

About Cranfield University

Cranfield is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.