Next generation air travel

Cheaper and quicker air travel could be on the horizon because of innovative robotic inspection research undertaken at Strathclyde in conjunction with Spirit AeroSystems.

Next generation aircraft, which are faster, lighter and greener, require completely novel technical solutions, such as those developed, to become a reality.


Traditional quality and conformance checks when manufacturing parts such as wings, can be a serious limitation on production throughput in aircraft construction. Automating the process with large industrial robots drastically shortens the cycle time. This means more parts pass through per hour, shortening lengthy aircraft lead time. Such techniques further improve accuracy and reliability, while current inspectors are further up skilled to process and monitor the much larger volume of measurement data.

The Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering (CUE) has over 10 years of investigation in automated Non-Destructive Evaluation, where parts and structures are assessed in a safe unobtrusive manner for their integrity. CUE are a founding member of the UK industry and government joint funded Research Centre in NDE (RCNDE).

Two CUE researchers were seconded for nine months to work very closely with Spirit’s senior composite engineers in Prestwick courtesy of Strathclyde’s EPSRC funded Impact Acceleration Account. While there they identified potential technology solutions and a strategy to highlight automated inspection proof of concept. With this successful collaboration a combined sub scale metrology and NDE demonstrator cell was developed, to first measure and then inspect aircraft components during manufacture.

Robotic manipulators

Allowing a maximum part size of 3 x 1 m, KUKA 6 degree of freedom robotic manipulators were used to deploy two inspection payloads. Non-contact cameras, strobe lighting and complex mathematics produce 3D models of the part to allow any deviations to be measured and quantified. This information drives sixty four individual ultrasonic sensors across the surface to produce an internal image of the part, building on techniques used in a typical sonogram.

The success of this feasibility study means the technology is now to be taken forward and trialled on a £1.3 million larger scale pre-production test cell housed within Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC).

This development will take the technology to a level suitable for full commercialisation and deployment in Spirit’s production facilities.