Article in Ny Teknik on aerial robotic aircraft inspection

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Klättrande robotar som inspekterar flygplan inför avfärd. Det kan bli verklighet inom en snar framtid.

Vid Luleå tekniska universitet pågår nu arbetet med att försöka ersätta mänskliga inspektörer.

I dag inspekteras flygplan manuellt av människor med sensorer. Hittas någonting som misstänks vara en skada måste kontrollanten klättra upp på planet för att inspektera skadan närmare.

Robots can handle aircraft inspection - Press Release

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Successful field trials have proven that it is possible to have a robot climb on an airplane for inspection purposes. – We are one of the first in the world to succeed with this task, says George Nikolakopoulos, Professor of Robotics and Automation at Luleå University of Technology.

Luleå University of Technology is one of five partners in the project CompInnova, a prestigious Horizon 2020 project within the call Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). The objective of the project is to develop an innovative inspection methodology for any type of composite aircraft structures.

The mission for the research group of Automatic Control was both futuristic and very challenging; to design and develop the mechanical, electrical and software components for a Vortex Robot, a robot that, through optimized air suction, can climb on surfaces regardless of their curvature and inclination. Now, this difficult mission has almost been accomplished, during field trials on a full Boeing 737 at Cranfield University.

See a mine through a drone's eyes

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An autonomous drone in a mine, based only on onboard sensory systems, will be able to autonomous explore an unknown mining environment. The drone will fly without being controlled by humans and will explore the mine by providing multiple services e.g. visual inspection, 3D mapping, dangerous gases detection, and other crucial information for the mine operators above the ground. Nobody in the world has done this assignment before - robotic scientists at Luleå University of Technology have taken the challenge. 

-We were the first in the world to provide a robust service of aerial inspection of wind turbines with autonomous drones. We will try to be also the first in the world to fly robustly autonomous drones in underground mines, George Nikolakopoulos, says, Professor of Robotics and Automation at Luleå University of Technology. 

The biggest challenge for the university's robotics scientist in the SIMS project is to successfully fly an autonomous drone safely and reliably in a real mine. The drone will use onboard sensors to understand where it is, something that becomes extra difficult in a dark mine and without prior means of localization. In the lab, the autonomous drone works excellent, but it is difficult to find sensors that have the same performance in a mine as in a lab. 

Intense Successful Experimentations

Luleå University of Technology made a very successful and attentive experiment outdoors, in June, where their autonomous drones independently and with great precision inspected wind turbines in Skellefteå. 

Other successful attempts have taken place in Rödbergsfortet in Boden, in an environment reminiscent of a mine. There, the scientists flew semi-autonomously, that is, the drones were remotely piloted by an operator, while avoiding obstacles that a human operator could not perceive. In that experiment, the researchers got evidence that the cameras of the drone can provide a very good and accurate 3D reconstruction of a mining environment. 

-Another important issue for us to solve is how we can optimally work with autonomous drones in the mine when making quick assessments. Should we send up multiple drones at the same time or use fewer but let them work faster? Emil Fresk, says, researcher in Robotics at Luleå University of Technology. 

Faster, cheaper and safer 

By using autonomous drones, with advance capabilities of inspecting and perceiving the surrounding mining environment, there might not be any more the need for having human workers in extremely hazardous mining environments. Drones could be further utilized for the case of autonomous inspection of large mine ventilation systems or shaft inspection as it is commonly called, or to identify the size of a cavity formed after blasting. Unlike classical mobile robots, drones can emerge in these challenging environments. 

-Using drones is faster, cheaper and safer. An autonomous drone can perceive the surrounding environment with great detail and create very reliable results from the analysis of the measurements, George Nikolakopoulos, says. 

During the autumn, the robotic researchers are planning to evaluate the drones in real mining environments. 

- We want to test, how our sensors and our algorithms work in these environments? For example, do we need to develop new sensors or does the drones need more light for the visual inspections? Emil Fresk, says.