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Air Force F-16s Are Now Getting Washed By Robots

The Wilder Systems solution actually leverages technology previously developed for robotic drilling in commercial aircraft manufacturing and converts these components and subsystems into an automated washing system. The main changes have involved the development and addition of robot end-effectors to provide the water and soap spray, waterproofing of the robots themselves, and a robot motion path, which is dependent on the type of aircraft to be cleaned.

According to a publicly available briefing from Wilder Systems, successful testing of the F-16 cleaning robot should be followed by “additional fighter-sized aircraft and larger airlift/tanker aircraft.” Beyond that, the company is also looking at the potential of using the same types of robots to conduct aircraft maintenance jobs such as panel drilling, non-destructive inspection (NDI), and de-paint/re-paint processes.

However, cleaning up any jet will likely remain a fairly laborious process, despite the technological advance heralded by this new concept. In particular, the process of taping up sensitive equipment and any openings is part of the process and it’s hard to see a robot taking on that work just yet.

Nevertheless, should the jet-cleaning fulfill its promise, Wilder Systems says it will not only deliver a higher wash quality, more flexibility, and a safer working environment for personnel but the effects could be felt on the flight line too. The company predicts that introducing the automated system could add up to 150 additional sorties annually and allow for an extra two pilots to be qualified.

Already, the company says, there is interest from other maintenance units beyond Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, and thought is already being given to how the same basic system could be used for applying de-icing and anti-icing fluids, or for chemical, biological, radiological decontamination chemicals. 

This is not the first time that increased automation promises to improve availability and quality control within the Air Force. The automated racks for F-22 Raptor drop tanks that we have discussed in the past are another great example of this kind of initiative. Using robots in place of human labor also presents an opportunity to help address the ongoing shortage of enlisted personnel in flying units. If there are fewer people available that are dedicated to aircraft maintenance, it makes sense for them to focus on the jobs that still have to be conducted by humans.

The days of crew chief using long-handled brushes to clean those hard-to-reach areas of the F-16 — not to mention other aircraft — could be numbered.

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