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SwRI’s laser coating removal robot wins R&D 100 Award

October 13, 2020 — Stripping paint and other coatings from full-body aircraft is required multiple times over the course of an aircraft’s lifespan. Traditionally, coating removal processes are costly, time-consuming, and potentially hazardous to workers and to the environment. That job has now been made more efficient with a robot-guided laser developed by Southwest Research Institute and XYREC. The laser coating removal (LCR) robot was recognized by R&D World magazine as one of the 100 most significant innovations of 2020.

The LCR is the only robotic aircraft coating removal process that can cover the full range of aircraft sizes, coatings, colors and substrates on a broad range of defense and commercial aircraft, from fighter jets and helicopters to cargo-sized aircraft.

“The technology is unique, fast and more environmentally friendly than traditional processes,” said Paul Evans, a director in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “LCR uses the largest specialized commercially available CO2 laser on the largest mobile manipulator to accurately control the coating removal process.”

The LCR robot uses intelligent process monitoring to precisely and safely remove the topcoat only or individual coatings. Controlled by a proprietary computer vision system with a patented polygon scanner, the robot uses a CO2 laser to evaporate and combust paint. Effluent is immediately vacuumed from the surface and passed through a filtration system.

A built-in, closed-loop, color recognition and control system allows it to strip both metal and composite surfaces accurately, making selective stripping possible. Software guides the robot, allowing LCR to closely follow the three-dimensional contour of an aircraft. The fully autonomous system can be managed by a single operator. It can also work independently or in tandem with another LCR.

“Coating removal is a critical and necessary operation needed for all aircraft at multiple times over the service life of an aircraft,” said Dr. Steve Dellenback, vice president of SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “We worked closely with XYREC to develop this innovative system.”

“XYREC is very pleased with the hard work done by Southwest Research Institute and is looking forward to entering into the aerospace market with the unique machine,” said Peter Boeijink, President and CEO of XYREC Inc.

The LCR system can shorten processing time by as much as 80%, drastically reducing cost-per aircraft, minimizing reliance on support facilities and reducing aircraft down time. It is compatible with all types of aircraft and helicopters and can also be used to remove coatings from a wide range of off-airframe parts.

“We are committed to continuously improving the world around us through innovation,” said SwRI President and CEO Adam L. Hamilton, P.E. “It’s an honor to see the Institute recognized for those efforts at what’s widely known as the ‘Oscars of Innovation.’”

The laser coating removal robot is one of two SwRI-developed innovative technologies recognized at this year’s awards competition. The R&D 100 Awards are among the most prestigious innovation awards programs, honoring the top 100 revolutionary technologies each year since 1963. Recipients hail from research institutions, academic and government laboratories, Fortune 500 companies and smaller organizations. Since 1971, SwRI has won 47 R&D 100 Awards.

For more information, visit Industrial Robotics & Automation or contact Rob Leibold+1 210 522 2258, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.