A First for Switzerland: Robotic Modifications On Combat Aircraft
(Source: Swiss defence procurement agency, armasuisse; issued Oct 3, 2017)
(Unofficial English translation by Defense-Aerospace.com)
Using a robot to refurbish airframe structures allows precision milling and constant execution, which are important advantages that a manual worker could not guarantee. (armasuisse photo)
An important milestone in the second F / A-18 structural reinforcement program was reached with the first preventive modification implemented on the J-5003 aircraft. This first prototype, carried out one year ahead of the initial program, consists of improving two critical positions of the cell by local milling by a robot.

This is a first for Switzerland. Another 58 actions are being developed under the second Structural Reinforcement Project (SRP2) of the F / A-18. The modification involves milling a frame in order to remove the upper layer, which is prone to microcracks, and to optimize the geometry locally. The idea is to prevent crack propagation in this area to avoid costly inspections and, if necessary, complex repairs.

The use of a robot allows precision milling and constant execution, which are important advantages that a manual worker could not guarantee. It is interesting to note that during the production of the prototype, a crack was discovered on one of the four worked positions. This scenario was planned and the damage was eliminated by drilling deeper.

Since the robot is preprogrammed for this operation, no delay in execution was necessary. This crack demonstrates the necessity and the urgency of these preventive modifications. If implemented too late, the various operations would no longer prevent cracks.

International cooperation

The RUAG Technology Group is responsible for the development of the modifications and inspections. The Canadian company L3-MAS quickly established itself as a subcontractor of RUAG for robotic modifications as it acquired considerable experience in this field during work for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

The main problem of robotic modifications is their development costs. A reduction of these costs by half was achieved thanks to the excellent collaboration between the Finnish air forces and armasuisse. The Finnish leaders were convinced of the usefulness of these changes and agreed to contribute financially to their implementation.

Development work began in the summer of 2015 and ended with the prototype J-5003. The budget allocated for this work has not been exceeded and the modifications have been completed over one year in advance of the initial schedule. It should also be noted that this would not have been possible without the support of RCAF, which have provided essential data for fatigue analysis in government-to-government exchanges.

209 inspections and 54 modifications

The SRP2 project consists of 209 inspections and 54 modifications. Inspections must ensure flight safety and the modifications are intended to prevent damage. The availability of the fleet in the medium and long term is improved and operating costs are reduced.

Upgrade and Life Extension Programs

The F / A-18C / D Hornet combat aircraft were acquired with the 1992 weapons program and introduced to the Air Force in the second half of the 1990s. Several upgrading programs (weapons programs 2001/2003, weapons program 2008 and framework credits for personal equipment and equipment to be renewed 2010/2011) have allowed this major operational asset of the Air Force to remain effective over the last 20 years.

With the 2017 Army message adopted by Parliament, the service life of the F / A-18 aircraft can be extended by another five years, until 2030.

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