With Booz & Company reporting that ?the backlog of orders for large, commercial fixed-wing aircraft stands at an impressive 8,000 and growing?in a market expected grow at 5 percent annually over the next few years?the fortunes of the aircraft industry would seem to be solid.
However, continues Booz, ?the price tag for recent large commercial wide-body aircraft development is more than $19B. Although this has been a significant barrier to entry, it has also made new development programs nearly a bet-the-company move, even for the likes of Boeing and Airbus.?
?As a result of the increased demand, aircraft manufacturers are investing in new technologies, which is a very positive thing for robotics companies,? says Adil Shafi, president of Brighton, Mich.-based Advenovation, Inc., which specializes in software for vision-guided robotics.
While robots are being used for all areas of high-precision drilling and riveting, another area that is becoming increasingly important is empennage, the back end of the aircraft (rudders, stabilizers, etc.).
?A lot of crashes have occurred due to empennage issues, according to Shafi. ?So this has become a critical area for robots to handle, in terms of drilling, riveting and other operations.?
Mistake-free robot skills in demand
Robots are also used for curve-based applications such as laser cutting, sealing, painting, gluing, laser welding and arc welding. Surface-based uses include coating, painting, polishing, machining and grinding.
?It?s very difficult, especially on military aircraft, for human beings to put coatings on wings in a very consistent manner,? Shafi added. ?It?s a perfect application for robots. Sometimes they are expensive. But they make no mistakes. Mistakes are very, very expensive.?
The aviation applications go beyond the bounds of the earth as well, Shafi added. Robotics are critical in Lockheed Martin?s Orion program, which is the successor of the space shuttle and is producing spacecraft low Earth orbit (LEO).
According to Lockheed Martin, Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.
?To support that, they are working with Texron Defense Systems in the area of a heat shield. Textron used to make the heat shields for the Apollo mission,? Shafi said. ?They are extremely reliable products.
They used to take a long time to make. Now with the demands on speed and reuse, Textron is turning to robotics to be able to build these heat shields reliably as well as quickly.?
Boeing is entering the space market as well, Shafi added. Other firms seeking a portion of this market are Airbus and Space X. Space X has made a business of going up to the international space station with unmanned deliveries. Virgin Atlantic, Northrup Grumman and Bell Helicopter are also working in this area, according to Shafi.
Google entered the fray with the Google challenge, which is being embraced by several institutions to be able to launch a spaceship, take it to the moon, do some work there and meet some criteria. Shafi likened the Google Challenge to the moon shot challenge of the 1960s.
He pointed out that the race to the moon resulted in new technologies. The Google challenge could spur similar developments, Shafi said. Robots are technically a part of the Google challenge because they help participants to do things more precisely and accurately.
Since precision is so critical for all types of aeronautics, it?s critical that robots have included systems that help keep them from ?drifting? off path, which can occur due to temperature, vibration or a host of other factors, according to Shafi.
Among the ways that companies are using to ensure the robots stay on track are vision-guided systems that use independent verification beyond the programmed information to confirm location and simulation tools that generate code from a central location (rather than needing to independently program each robot).
This code includes tracking and verification guidance to keeps things correct and makes the work easier. ?Sometimes small placement differences can make a big difference in repeatability, accuracy and speed,? Shafi said.