Robotic Paint Strippers
Robotics & Automation Engineering

The world's first fully automated aircraft paint stripping system was installed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, for the U.S. Air Force's Wright Laboratories Repair Technology (REPTECH) Program. The robotic paint stripping cell (RPSC) employs an environmentally friendly, nonchemical dry media blasting process, suited to the delicate aluminum and composite materials common to military aircraft surfaces. The RPSC is a two-robot system that was originally developed for F-4 Phantom coating removal. Immediately following installation, the system programming was adapted for F-16 Falcon aircraft and is used to process approximately 100 F-16s each year.

Robotic paint stripping cell at Robins Air Force Base

image of a robotic paint stripping cell at Robins Air Force Base

Robotic paint stripping cell at Robins Air Force Base

A sister system, installed at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, is known as the Robotic Depaint System (RDS). The RDS uses three robots, one for each side and one for the verticals, for coating removal. This system processes approximately 50 F-15 Eagles each year.

The robotic systems improve worker health and safety conditions by eliminating exposure to dust-laden air, avoiding elevated work platforms, and reducing fatiguing manual depainting operations. In addition, labor savings and other indirect cost savings are projected to amount to thousands of dollars per aircraft.

Background of Aircraft Paint Stripping

SwRI was presented with the task of automating the depainting of aircraft. The previous method of depainting military aircraft was manual labor intensive and time consuming. The blasting material resulted in a very dusty work environment with poor lighting conditions. The Air Force installed the systems to:

  • Reduce number of personnel exposed to the process
  • Increase worker safety
  • Increase throughput
  • Increase process quality

Robotic Paint Stripping Cell Solution

To meet the specifications required by the military, SwRI developed custom robotic systems for Hill and Robins Air Force Bases.

  • The system at Hill Air Force Base consists of two custom robots mounted in a hanger on either side of the aircraft.
  • The system at Robins Air Force Base consists of three custom robots, two mounted on each side of the aircraft and one mounted at the back center.

The RPSC was initially installed with patented sensor technology for closed-loop paint removal control. Each robot has nine degrees of freedom. The motion is controlled by an Adept Windows controller installed in an Adept MV-10 chassis. A custom kinematic solution was incorporated to accommodate a redundant axis on the arm.

The specifications for an RDS robot are provided in the table below: 

Specification Value
End of arm load capacity 100 pounds
Number of axes 9 (split into two motion groups)
Motion group 1 (Robot 1) 2 axis-coordinated motion
Motion group 2 (Robot 2) 7 axis-coordinated motion
Drive system DC brushless servo motors
Position feedback Absolute resolver packages
Motion controller Adept
Maximum reach from robot base 30 feet
Radius from column 22.75 feet
Total accessible volume 69,000 cubic feet
Repeatability ± 0.25 inches
Total Weight 23,000 pounds

The media delivery system incorporates a continuous-feed blast pot provided by Schmidt of International Surface Preparation. The media recovery and filtering system for the RPSC was provided by Clemco Industries, and the media recovery and processing system for the RDS was provided by Blast Grit Recovery Systems (BGRS). Each robot was initially installed with three custom round nozzles that provided a 7-inch stripping swath. All robots were upgraded to a Pauli Systems fan nozzle to provide a 9-inch swath. The average time to for robotic depaint operations of an F-16 aircraft is 10 hours and the average time to depaint an F-16 aircraft is 12 hours.

Robotic Paint Stripper Results/Outcome

The RPSC and the RDS are both in full-production use. The Air Force depends on these two systems to meet production demands. Additionally, these systems may be adapted to depaint other components, if necessary.

image of a robotic depaint system at Robins Air Force Base

Robotic depaint system at Robins Air Force Base

image of a robotic depaint system end-effector with round nozzles

Robotic depaint system end-effector with round nozzles

Related Terminology

paint stripping system  •  depaint operations  •  surface processing  •  coating removal  •  military aircraft surfaces  •   robotic systems

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Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, is a multidisciplinary, independent, nonprofit, applied engineering and physical sciences research and development organization with 9 technical divisions.