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Laser-firing robots strip paint from fighters

Jan. 8, 2013 - 10:38AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 8, 2013 - 10:38AM  |  
Robots such as these will be put into use on F-16s and C-130s at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to strip paint off the aircraft and reduce health hazards and pollution that workers face in existing methods of paint-stripping.
Robots such as these will be put into use on F-16s and C-130s at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to strip paint off the aircraft and reduce health hazards and pollution that workers face in existing methods of paint-stripping. (Air Force)
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In yet another case demonstrating that robots can now do the work humans used to do, the Air Force has ordered a pair of systems that use robots with lasers to strip paint off its F-16 fighters and C-130 cargo planes.

Concurrent Technologies Corp. is lead contractor for the $17 million project, which is expected to go into full use at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in late 2014, according to those involved with the program. Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh is a subcontractor for the project.

Two systems are being developed: one for F-16s and another for C-130s, said Jim Arthur of Concurrent Technologies.

The F-16 system uses two robots and the C-130 version uses four, Arthur said. Each robot has a 6-kilowatt laser that shatters the paint off aircraft.

"It creates these tiny micro-cracks and like a shockwave basically ablates it off the surface," he said.

A vacuum system collects any waste product created by the process, Arthur said. The entire process takes an estimated 26 hours for F-16s and 66 hours for C-130s.

Currently, stripping paint off planes involves blasting aircraft with plastic beads or using chemicals, both of which produce large quantities of harmful waste products, said Rick Crowther, Air Force project manager for the system.

"When you blast an aircraft with this plastic media, you generate quite a bit of dust," Crowther said. "In that dust is all the pollutants from the paint. You've got chromate primer in there, you've got some cadmium in there — it's hazardous materials. Blasting a full F-16 generates about 2,000 pounds of this dust that [has] these hazardous pollutants."

Chemicals used to strip paint off C-130s produce a toxic sludge that needs to be treated at an industrial waste plant, he said.

By contrast, the robot systems vacuum 99.9 percent of the dust from the paint as it is being stripped off the surface, Crowther said.

The system is also meant to save manpower, he said. Currently, planes go to depot to get paint stripped. The work is mostly done by civilians.

It takes four people to blast paint off F-16s and between 12 and 18 for C-130s, Crowther said. Only one person is needed to operate the robots.

At present, the Air Force has ordered just two systems, Crowther said, but the process could be used on other aircraft.

"We at Hill are actually looking at the feasibility to move this to A-10 aircraft, our T-38 aircraft," he said. "Possibly looking at the future of the workload that we'll be working on with our LO [low-observable] aircraft with F-22 and F-35."

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