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Feature Story

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The art of aerospace

As Boeing researcher Charles Erignac recently walked through the company's expansive factory in Everett, Wash., he used a camera and laser-scanning sensors that captured three-dimensional images of the plant and the large twin-aisled commercial airplanes assembled there.

It's expected that aerospace manufacturing of the future will require increasingly detailed and timely 3-D maps to meet efficiency and productivity demands - and Boeing researchers such as Erignac are working to improve the technology that can create such maps.

The images "are quite stunning on their own."

Boeing researchers envision a day when robots or people with handheld devices can scan an airplane and the manufacturing environment, and then compare the findings with design documents to safely dock and accurately position autonomous assembly machines. It's technology that industrial engineers could use to improve the efficiency and flow of production, they say. It's also technology that could help guide soldiers across an urban battlefield, or help scientists investigate activity in space.

3-D mapping technology

Boeing photo

A research team from Boeing demonstrated 3-D mapping technology in the 747 factory in Everett, Wash. - and created some colorful avant garde aerospace images in the process.

The imagery in Everett was created by Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology under development by Boeing Research & Technology, the company's centralized advanced R&D organization, and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), as well as others.

Boeing and CSIRO have been working to make sure the technology is suited to the complex and dynamic nature of an aircraft assembly line.

Mapping that could at one time only be captured by a complex system of scanners connected to a large cart can now be done with a device not much larger than a cell phone.

After a number of years of research in SLAM technology, CSIRO recently developed a spring-mounted scanning device that can fit in the palm of a hand. By moving the device through an area, software is able to simultaneously estimate the trajectory of the sensor, and create a 3-D map.

engineer Blandino Go

Ed Turner photo

Boeing Research & Technology engineer Blandino Go uses a small, spring-mounted portable hand-held device to create a three-dimensional map of the 747 assembly line environment during a recent demonstration in Everett, Wash.

According to Peter Kambouris, a CSIRO business development manager, testing has confirmed the viability of the SLAM technology and highlighted its ability to rapidly generate maps in previously very difficult, cluttered and confined environments.

“The main benefits of this technology are speedy delivery of useful real-time mapping for decision-making and improved productivity,” Kambouris said.

And while the 3-D maps have a serious engineering purpose, they also are interesting visually. When displayed on a monitor, they resemble something you'd see in a modern art museum. Airframes and other structures are depicted as point clouds, and the color palette is bathed in reds, greens, blues and yellows.

“The images represent a step in the right direction in terms of 3-D mapping innovation that could someday have value across Boeing, but they also are quite stunning on their own,” said Erignac, a Boeing Associate Technical Fellow.

“Today, we work with computers by immersing ourselves in virtual reality,” Erignac said. “Tomorrow, thanks to 3-D mapping and perception, the computers will work with us immersed in our reality.”