US Navy tests laser cleaning technology on aircraft components

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A handheld laser system was demonstrated at the US Navy's FRCE facility. (Image: Adapt Laser)

The US Navy has tested laser cleaning technology on aircraft support components to remove corrosion and other hazardous coatings safely.

The technology was tested by Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE), a division in the US Navy that provides maintenance, repair, and overhaul support to the weapons platforms of the Marine Corps.

Typically, aircraft support components are cleaned using plastic blasting and mechanical removal methods, both of which use a significant amount of consumables, can be dangerous to operate, and require extensive PPE.

The FRCE Advanced Technology and Innovation (ATI) team and Materials Engineering Division have therefore been looking to adopt laser ablation technology at the facility.

‘Plastic blasting and mechanical removal with sanders are similar processes, but they create a lot more dust and waste,’ said Chase Templeton, FRCE robotics, support equipment, and wiring technology lead engineer. ‘Any time you have plastic media blasting or some of these other processes, the waste that’s produced is considered hazardous waste. It’s very expensive to remove and dispose of.’

Laser solutions provider Adapt Laser recently demonstrated a handheld laser ablation solution at FRCE by stripping paint from a large aircraft engine can, aircraft components, and test-panels with various coatings. The demonstration was attended by several groups of maintenance artisans, engineers, marines, and coast guardsmen.

'Our laser solutions use thousands of laser pulses per second to remove contaminants, corrosion, and hazardous coatings,’ explained Timothy Niemeier, vice president at Adapt Laser. ‘Unlike other abrasive cleaning methods, laser ablation doesn’t impact the integrity of the substrate or create hazardous mixed waste. Coatings and contaminants removed by our laser ablation process are safely captured by filters and easily disposed of. This makes it a more cost-effective and safer cleaning solution compared to traditional methods.'

Related: Researchers develop laser systems capable of cleaning ship hulls underwater

FRCE team members and viewers were surprised by the benefits of laser cleaning, with aircraft examiner Chad Richards remarking at how quiet the solution was compared to abrasive blasting: ‘Right now, you can’t be understood when you’re blasting. With laser ablation, you can have someone right beside you talking.’

With the demonstration considered an overall success, the ATI team must now develop a cost-benefit analysis that could lead to the handheld laser system’s procurement. Despite such units costing between $400,000 and $500,000, the FRCE engineers said they expect the system would pay for itself in the long run — with reduced costs for purchase and disposal of hazardous materials, as well as the benefits of quicker turnaround time, improved worker safety, and decreased environmental hazards.

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