Maintenance and repair work in the aeronautics and construction industries can be both time-consuming and dangerous, which is why an EU project is developing robots that are a cost-effective way to get the job done without exposing workers to potential harm.
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Achieving automation in large-scale maintenance work has always been a challenge. While the replacement of parts in, say, an ocean-going ship requires very specific and precise action, current robotic systems are often not flexible enough to carry out every repair required. As a result, when it comes to large-scale maintenance, potentially hazardous and expensive manual labour continues to be the norm.
In response, the EU-funded project CableBOT is developing a new-generation robotic system made up of a network of cables and computer-controlled winches capable of performing different maintenance steps during the life-cycles of large-scale structures.
The modular and reconfigurable system can be set up quickly and can be easily scaled up from very small versions for room-sized jobs to a gigantic configuration for large structures.
“The uniqueness of almost any large-scale product has, up until now, prevented the design of an automated process capable of a wide range of actions,” explains project manager Mariola Rodríguez. “CableBOT will demonstrate the potential of cable robotic systems for the life-cycle maintenance and repair of aircraft, and will also introduce automation in life-cycle applications in the construction industry.”
The use of expensive state-of-the-art automation in both of these sectors has, until now, been hampered by the frequent need to manoeuvre sizeable, heavy parts, and by the risk of damage to expensive equipment.
The robots are controlled by cutting-edge software tools. The key to their flexibility is the ad-hoc connection of diverse winches to different tools – where they are put to use and can be reconfigured quickly and efficiently if needed.
The CableBOT team are also developing control algorithms and systems to operate the cable robots, according to industrial requirements. The next step for the project will be to verify their operation in environments with large-scale structures.
“The end result of this combination of technologies in an integrated robotic system will be a highly versatile system,” says Rodríguez.
The immediate benefit to workers will be a reduction in their exposure to dangerous working conditions, which will lead to fewer accidents. For industry, the use of robots for complex maintenance tasks promises cost effectiveness and improved operational efficiency and functionality.
“In addition to the benefits to European industry, this project has also taught me how to collaborate with experts in technical and commercial matters from different countries, and how to reach our objectives together,” says Rodríguez.
The three-year CableBOT project, which got underway in November 2013, will receive a total of EUR 3 million in EU funding.
“CableBOT represents an excellent opportunity to design, implement and validate innovative robotics in different EU countries and for different industrial sectors,” concludes Rodríguez. “Indeed, the solutions developed will be built very much according to European industrial needs.”
She expects that the project’s results will be transferrable to other fields, including logistics, transport and warehousing.