The assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and logistics got a close up look at a new, cutting-edge technology in Johnstown, Penn., April 4 that’s expected to reduce pollution and the exposure of Airmen to hazardous compounds.
Terry Yonkers’ visit to the headquarters of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a partner in the Air Force development of laser aircraft paint stripping components, was an advanced observance of Earth Day.
Aircraft painting and depainting operations are often an overlooked source of pollution as well as a cause of Airmen being exposed to hazardous compounds. However, the state-of-the-art laser technology and robotics may offer a solution for a host of environmental, safety and occupational health, and budgetary challenges.
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is actively pursuing automated laser coating removal. The commercially available system can improve depot depaint operations both in terms of minimizing environmental toxins and providing significant cost savings.
“This is an outstanding example of how we all can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our Air Force,” Yonkers said. “This technology will not only eliminate a hazardous waste stream; it will also reduce costs, reduce process flow time, reduce worker exposure to potential hazards, and (it) can improve the consistency and quality of the operation.”
The advanced robotic laser coating removal system could reduce Airmen exposure to toxic chemicals by as much as 75 percent, according to Tom Naguy, the senior program manager for environment and energy in AFRL’s materials and manufacturing directorate, which is spearheading the project.
“We could also realize initial savings up to $8 million per year,” Naguy added.
For years, aircraft and parts depainting has been a labor-intensive task, involving by-hand application of toxic paint-strippers to a variety of aircraft components, he said. The robotic system, by contrast, uses powerful, targeted lasers to remove paint from an airplane’s substrate.
“The beauty of this approach is that it is both scalable and adaptable,” Naguy said. “We can use the same set of tools for depainting an F-16 as we use on a C-130. And there is no advance programming required for these robots. Sensors placed slightly ahead of the coating-removal end of the laser scan the surface of the component to develop a three-dimensional map of the part surface in real time and adjust the robotic motions accordingly.”
The system realizes vast reductions in power consumption, greenhouse gas emission equipment, maintenance costs and waste products associated with traditional chemical removal processes.
“A greener work environment is an inherently more efficient environment,” Yonkers said. “I commend the outstanding work AFRL has done in transitioning new technologies that reduce pollution and waste generated in the sustainment of our weapons systems.”
Currently, the technology is being used at Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB, Utah, to remove coatings from F-16 Fighting Falcon radomes. The center is actively pursuing approvals to expand use of the current system for C-130 Hercules radomes, as well as F-16 and C-130 flight controls.
“Once all aspects of the demonstration have been evaluated and reported, the hope is we can become fully operational at depots enterprise-wide,” Naguy said.