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Robotic arm is newest Eglin innovation

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.
  • Team Eglin Public Affairs

What began as just a casual comment about a robotic arm during a performance evaluation quickly became the 96th Test Wing’s newest funded innovation project and a kick off for the wing’s Efficiency Challenge.

The project is to purchase and mount a robotic arm to missile flight motion simulator, located in the Guided Weapons Evaluation Facility.  The robotic arm, known as CalBot, will perform multiple instrument calibrations to the simulation autonomously greatly reducing test downtime and manpower.

“This is another example of successful innovation coming from Team Eglin,” said Brig. Gen. Evan Dertien, 96th Test Wing commander.  “With these ideas, we are incrementally improving the way we execute our mission and making the Air Force better for it.”

The flight motion simulator is a gyroscopic test device used to create flight simulations for missiles.  A large hydraulic arm moves and rotates around the seeker portion of a missile simulating an aircraft in flight.  Upon (simulated) missile launch, another arm moves the seeker to track and intercept the aircraft.  Data is gathered from the test to improve weapon reliability and performance.

The FMS performs approximately 150 simulations per day.  Due to the spinning and movement velocities of the FMS arms, manual/human calibration to the instruments and cameras is not safe. Shutting the FMS down doesn’t work either.  When off, the hydraulic arms return to a resting position which make them out of place to check or adjust a setting.

The current solution is to have the FMS on, but stationary and use ropes and pulleys to tie down and secure the arms in the proper position so human calibrations can be accomplished safely.  This process takes six people around two hours to perform.

Due to the exertions and testing downtime it creates, extensive calibration of the FMS is limited.  It has undergone only one full calibration in 2019. 

The idea to improve the process came from Nathan Harper, an engineering contractor in the GWEF.  Upon seeing the current calibration limitations, Harper researched ways it could be improved with more modern technology.

“I always wanted to get a robot involved in the process,” said Harper, a four-year GWEF employee with a physics background.  “The question was how could we incorporate it.”

He began drawing up plans for an arm that would be non-invasive during testing simulations, but between tests the CalBot could grab a specific tool (located beside it) and reach up to make needed measurements.  Based on his tests, Harper’s CalBot idea would virtually eliminate unneeded FMS power downs and cut extensive calibration times of 12 manhours to less than five minutes.

As soon as Harper’s supervision heard of the idea, it was immediately advanced to a higher level.

“I asked him (Harper) what goals he wanted to achieve during this reporting period, and he said ‘I’m working on this robot thing,’” said Joshua Turnier, Harper’s supervisor, about first hearing about CalBot in March.  “I said ‘wait, back up, what’s this about a robot.’  He told me, and I said ‘this is genius.’”

The potential was apparent from the beginning, according to Jon Harris, 782nd Test Squadron hardware systems section chief.  Upon hearing about the idea, 782nd TS leadership pushed Harper and his team to contact the 96th Test Wing innovation office.  They were in front of an innovation approval panel within days that included the base commander.

“They knew a lot about our idea when we walked in and were ready to talk to us about it,” said Harris.

CalBot was given on-the-spot approval.  The team asked $60,000, but got $75,000 with a commitment from Dertien if they needed more.

 Harris said he plans to purchase the CalBot as soon as possible.  Upon arrival, the robotic arm could be up and calibrating in a little more than a month, according to Harper.

Harper will write the computer code that will guide CalBot’s movements to make the calibrations.  The GWEF’s fabrication shop will make the robot’s tools and any instrumentation needed to hold and secure them.

CalBot was the first project approved under the innovation office’s Efficiency Challenge project.  Its purpose is to allow Airmen to submit their ideas to apply new technology to an existing problem, eliminate unneeded work or automate manual processes to improve efficiency or capabilities.  The Challenge lasts through June 30.