Aerobotix, an AS9100-certified FANUC robotics integrator, marked having 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.
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 doing so by hand. Aerobotix refurbished its first F-22 in 2016 and is on track to restore its 50th by early 2023.
“Our robotic technology can paint these units using only about 300 hours of labor, rather than 1,600 hours,” said project manager Bret Benvenuti, a senior robotics engineer at Aerobotix. “That’s a labor saving of around 80%, so it really solves the challenge 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.”
On jet aircraft, inlets ensure smooth airflow into engines despite turbulent air coming at the ducts from multiple directions. Aerobotix’s automated painting solution for inlet duct maintenance not only achieves major labor savings; it also improves accuracy and quality control, giving F-22 aircraft a better performance signature against radar.
Additionally, the automated system can apply more coating before the material’s pot life expires, significantly 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 project lead Nathan Morgan, an Aerobotix field engineer. “Under those conditions, it’s nearly impossible for workers to manually apply the coatings at consistent speeds and thicknesses. Our robots achieve better results while also curbing the number of worker injuries.”
Aerobotix’s system uses two robots working at the forward and aft ends of the ducts to sand and spray-coat them. Three of the 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. Coating the lip area while the aft robot is spraying the inlets saves between two and three days in labor. Aerobotix 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,” added Benvenuti. “When you see the aircraft flying overhead, it really gives you a sense of accomplishment.”