In the automotive industry, life is pretty easy for the car-assembling robots ... they just sit in the same place performing the same task, day after day. Things are different in the aerospace industry, however. Airplanes aren’t made on assembly lines, so any robots used in their construction would have to move around them. The member organizations of the European VALERI Project (Validation of Advanced, Collaborative Robotics for Industrial Applications) are now working on making such mobile, autonomous plane-building robots a reality.
The project’s omniRob robots are intended mainly for performing tasks in confined spaces (such as applying sealant), using their manipulator arms. Such work can be challenging for humans, thus increasing the likelihood of worker error, and of repetitive strain injuries.
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One of the challenges, however, lies in the fact that such tasks would need to be performed in multiple areas of the aircraft. This means that unlike their car-building counterparts, the robots would have to be adaptable, accessing different locations at different heights and angles. Neither their hardware nor their programming could be focused solely on one very specific working scenario.
Additionally, because automotive robots stay in one place, they can be fenced off for the protection of their human co-workers. In the case of the omniRob robots, though, they would be constantly moving around the aircraft. In order to keep from running into human workers, or whacking them with their arms, the robots would have to be equipped with a computer vision system and tactile sensors. These would cause the robots to instantly stop moving if they touched or saw something – such as a person – that was in their way.
Of course, they would also have to do a very good job. Whereas a faulty weld in an automobile might result in some rattling, such a flaw in an aircraft could be catastrophic. To that end, the robots will use onboard cameras to scrutinize all of their work.
For now, though, the robots are still being developed in the lab. Input is being gathered from factory workers at companies such as Airbus (one of the project partners), to determine which tasks would be best handled by the omniRobs. More information on the VALERI Project is available in the video below.
Carnegie Mellon University, incidentally, has already developed robots for stripping paint off of aircraft, although their designers believe that they could also be used for performing inspections and repairs.