Robots to soon refuel F-35 jets on ground

Air Force Research Laboratory researchers are developing a robot for automated aircraft ground refueling at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. In this photo, Air Force Research Laboratory's automated aircraft ground refueling system mock-up simulates performing a refueling test. USAF photo

WASHINGTON (BNS): Instead of manual refuelling of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, soon it will be robots doing the job on the ground. The demonstrational testing will begin in 2010.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate officials based at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, are developing an automated aircraft refuelling system for the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, researchers are making technology selections, evaluating robotic vision equipment, planning for the utilities required at the demonstration site and preparing to build the system.

Officials of the Air Force base said that the system will meet the goal of Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st century, to find innovative ways to use Air Force material and personnel more efficiently. “The decreased number of personnel near each aircraft during ‘hot’ refuelling, while one or more engines are operating, will improve safety. Future advances based on the results of the system will allow refuelling crews to operate free of Mission-Oriented Protective Posture gear in a closed environment and still be protected from chemical-biological risks,” they said.

The robotic group leader, Walt Waltz said that the aircraft ground refuelling equipment had improved but the method of refuelling had changed minimally. “It is still a manual process that involves personnel handling the fuel supply hose, attaching, and then detaching it,” Waltz said.

The robotic leader said that researchers based at the directorate’s Airbase Technologies Division, located at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, received a request from officials at the Air Education and Training Command, the Air Force Petroleum Agency and the Naval Air Systems Command to develop an automated system to refuel the F-35, while on the ground.

Explaining the process, Waltz said that once completed, an operator will use this robotic system to initiate refuelling with the push of a button on an operational control unit from several hundred feet away. The unit will communicate with a computer that will govern the robot’s actions.

“The robot will be tethered to a fuel hydrant by a pantograph. This multi-jointed, moving pipeline will follow behind the robot and supply it with fuel. A vision-based guidance system will direct the robot’s movements. Vision and proximity sensors will observe the aircraft’s location and the robot’s approach path. The guidance system will confirm the aircraft type, assess its orientation, and locate the fuel door. The robot will then position itself near the fuel door. Once in position, accurate angular measurements will align the nozzle with the single point refuelling adapter on the aircraft. The robot will attach the fuel nozzle and begin fueling. At completion, a similar reverse procedure will detach and retract the robot from the aircraft,” the official said.

Throughout the refueling process, the guidance sensors will monitor unexpected changes in proximity to the aircraft or objects on the ground to prevent unwanted contact. The system’s operator will use the operational control unit to monitor the simultaneous activities of one or more robots. A quick safety abort function will halt the system should a problem arise, he said.

Waltz said that recently a demonstration was shown using a vision-guided robot to move a refuelling nozzle to an aircraft mock-up, locate the single point refuelling adapter, and place a refuelling nozzle on the adapter.

“A robotic arm was fitted with a charge-coupled device camera and a simulated (single point refueling) nozzle. A personal computer aided by a mainframe computer processed image files from the robot and guided it towards the single point refuelling adapter. The robot slid the simulated nozzle around the adapter and rotated the nozzle. The process was demonstrated several times. The system’s performance during the demonstration helped to prove that an autonomous robot is a feasible alternative to manual refuelling,” Waltz said.

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