US Air Force Unveils Robot Jet Washer for F-16s

The robotic system allows for cleaning to be done at night automatically, so the crew can focus on other tasks during the day.

The US Air Force has unveiled an automated cleaning system to deep clean F-16 fighter jets. In a demonstration last week at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, robotic spraying arms were seen washing an F-16C with much greater speed and efficiency than traditional methods.

Fighters such as the F-16 need to be dirt and grime-free. The accumulation of grease, oil, and hydraulic fluid, as well as engine soot, smoke, and insects, can be corrosive to the aircraft. Neglecting this vital maintenance can weaken the aircraft’s metal parts, including wings, panel, and landing gear, which is potentially dangerous. 

The recently unveiled robotic system can clean the entire plane in an hour, compared to traditional human labor, which often takes up to two days with three or four people. Austin-based robotics specialist Wilder Systems developed the system, signing a memorandum of understanding with the US Air Force 149th Fighter Wing.

Staff Sergeant Kyle Padgett, a crew chief at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, said that cleaning the fighter jets manually is “hard work” and “a very tedious job.”

“These jets are very hard to clean because the grease, oil hydraulic fluids, and debris that build up over 180 days are difficult to get off the paint. The landing gear is also hard to clean because there are so many nooks and crannies,” Padgett told The Drive.

Better Cleaning System

The traditional “wash-rack” required maintenance crew to spray the fighter with a soap called Aerowash. For safety purposes, they wear goggles, gloves, boots, overalls, and a jacket, to protect them from the soap. 

With the new robot system, the cleaning can be done at night automatically, so the crew can focus on other tasks during the day.

The technology may also be rolled out for other planes such as larger airlift or tanker aircraft. 

The robot can also be employed for other maintenance tasks such as panel drilling, non-destructive inspection, paint stripping, and repainting. Additional possibilities include the application of de-icing and anti-icing fluid as well as biological and radiological decontamination.

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