Russia Is Using Augmented Reality To Produce Its Su-57 Fighter

Video has recently emerged showing workers on the production line for Russia’s Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter using augmented reality to assist with the assembly of the aircraft. While it is unclear whether the technology is already in use, or whether it’s still in development, it shows a hitherto unseen level of sophistication in the manufacturing process for the Felon.

The two videos are dated March 24, 2020, but were posted to YouTube today and brought to our attention by The Dead District

blog. They reveal how the Su-57 fighter jet assembly line at the United Aircraft Corporation’s Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant, or KnAAZ, in Russia’s Far East region looks when viewed through an augmented reality (AR) compliant headset. AR technology provides an interactive experience of a real-world environment, with computer-generated perceptual information overlaid, providing the user with a combination of virtual and real objects.

The ill-fated first pre-production Su-57 crashed on December 24, 2019.,  Marina Lystseva/TASS via Getty Images

In this scenario, the AR appears to work using QR codes attached to various major Su-57 assemblies that are then scanned by the technician. This in turn calls up the appropriate AR algorithm that overlays digitally generated imagery of the various subassemblies and components, showing the worker where the different parts go. Employing QR codes in this way is not new — indeed, they were first used to facilitate the production process in the automotive industry in Japan, back in the mid-1990s.

In the video seen directly below, for instance, we see an AR version of the Su-57’s main undercarriage overlaid on the appropriate real-world section of the center fuselage “barrel”. Also included are virtual cables and connectors, and the various internal rivets and attachment points, indicating where each item needs to be installed. An AR-created touchscreen menu allows the user to select different options, presumably to guide them through different stages of the complex production process, well as safety advice and other pertinent information. 

A similar, albeit non-AR approach is used in the production of the U.S.-made F-35 Lightning II, in which an array of projectors shows technicians where to place screws and other fittings, in a process that you can watch here. Ultimately, both Russian and U.S. methods help ensure that the stealthy jets being built are finished to the highest possible standards. While it might not be such a big deal for a more conventional plane, mis-tapping a hole for a screw, or installing a screw or other fitting in the wrong hole, or slightly off-center, threatens to leave the surface of the aircraft not perfectly flush, in the process diminishing its low-observable characteristics. The War Zone has talked previously about these vital aspects of quality control, and the related assembly-line infrastructure, in this article

The second pre-production Su-57 takes shape on the production line at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aviation Plant., Russian Ministry of Defense

In one part of the video, we also see the user interface, in the form of a visor-style headset, rather than the truly lightweight eyewear that is also now available in the AR realm. However, since production-line workers are often used to wearing some kind of goggles or safety glasses, then adding another layer of eyewear of this kind should not be a major inconvenience. The result should also bring the production line closer to a paperless working environment, with a reduced requirement for traditional instruction manuals and blueprints. While the video shows the visual aspect of this AR system, there is no reason why it couldn’t also provide the user synchronized auditory inputs, too.

The visor-style headset used to present augmented reality imagery., YOUTUBE SCREENCAP

It’s also worth noting that the way the videos have been made has resulted in some loss of accuracy in the way the virtual imagery is superimposed over the real-world environment. According to this explanation, this is due to the mismatch in calibration between the video camera relative to the projection display of the glasses. This is apparent, for example, in the sequence showing virtual rivets misaligned compared to their real-world locations.

The same source contends that the videos likely show part of the “debugging of the assembly line” for the Su-57, noting that it was reported earlier this year that the line had been optimized to improve efficiency, “including the transfer of the alignment and delivery area from another workshop to the assembly workshop.” This suggests that the AR technologies seen here were perhaps used during this reconfiguration of the production line and are not necessarily a routine part of the assembly process.

A still from the video showing the purported mismatch in calibration, leaving the virtual rivets wrongly aligned., YOUTUBE SCREENCAP

Nevertheless, the videos show the potential for using AR as a fundamental part of the assembly process. This would potentially result in more efficiency and greater productivity, helping to highlight any potential material defects, and streamline handling, for example. It would also be a valuable tool for teaching new employees. Returning to the F-35 program, it’s a telling fact that a lot of the early production work had to be done by hand, in the absence of robotic systems that provided the required level of precision. Lockheed Martin and its partners have since developed all-new robotic manufacturing systems to help speed up F-35 production, and the Russian AR technology may have similar goals as the United Aircraft Corporation works towards an increased production tempo for the Felon.

Production of the Su-57 at the KnAAZ plant dates back a long time, with Sukhoi receiving a contract from the Russian Ministry of Defense for construction and tests of the original T-50 prototypes back in 2003.

T-50-5 was the last of the first batch of Su-57 prototypes, prior to the redesign. After a fire in June 2014, it was rebuilt as the T-50-5R and returned to the air in October 2015., RUSSIAN EMBASSY OFFICIAL TWITTER ACCOUNT

After the first five prototypes, the airframe design was reworked to increase its strength, and another batch of five was then completed to a modified design, the first of these, T-50-6-2, flying for the first time in 2016.

The first pre-production Su-57 was not completed until December 2019 and, but crashed later that month, on delivery to the Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS, an event you can read about in this previous article. The second pre-production aircraft was completed in October 2020 and will become the first example handed over to the Russian military.

As it stands, only 76 Su-57s are under contract for the VKS, under an order announced by President Vladimir Putin in May 2019. These aircraft are in addition to the pre-production airframes and are expected to be handed over from 2021.

After an earlier proposal to co-produce the Su-57 with India fell through, there have been some efforts to pitch the fighter to other potential export customers, including Turkey. Other nations that have been suggested as possible future Felon operators include Algeria, Egypt, and Vietnam, all traditional purchasers of Russian defense equipment, although, to date, there have been no further orders.

Beyond that, work is underway on an improved Felon, likely to be designated Su-57M, which will feature the definitive Izdeliye 30 engines that will offer more power and increased reliability. Orders beyond the initial 76 jets for the VKS are likely to encompass this version, which could enter series production around 2024.

Despite currently just a fairly token quantity of Su-57s under contract, there seems to be no reason why the same AR technology couldn’t be adapted to aid Russia’s manufacturing process of other aircraft, whether military or civilian.

Hat-tip to @TheDeadDistrict for bringing these videos to our attention.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.