Robots take to the sky

An imminent plethora of UAVs, big and small, will have implications for existing and future users of the NAS.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl

Flying wing concept from British company VTOL Technologies offers the speed and payload of conventional UAVs with 3–4 times the endurance.

It's small, it's cheap (at least on the scale of high tech), and it's going where no man has gone in 4500 years.

It is a "tomb-bot"—a tracked robot designed by engineers at the University of Leeds, in England, to drill through a door in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

The door is in one of 2 shafts leading out of the Queen's Chamber. Archaeologists discovered the shafts in 1872. Nearly 140 years later, no one knows where they go. In 1992, a camera sent up one of the shafts found a limestone door blocking it some 60 meters in.

Ten years later, another expedition drilled through the door—and found another door, just 8 inches further on. It is this door that the tombbot is intended to penetrate.
You may be asking what this has to do with aviation. Honestly, nothing. It's just one more cute example of the ways in which robots are transforming even the more unlikely areas of human activity.

Unlike archaeology, aviation does not seem to be an unlikely target for robotics. It sits dead-center in the bull's eye.

"Robotics, in the form of UAVs, UCAVs and so on, is rapidly taking over military aviation," observes Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center. "Both the Navy and USAF have proclaimed 'robotic aerial futures.' The Dept of Homeland Security indicates they require a large UAV force to defend the nation.

Congress has called for an ATC system that would enable robotic aircraft to fly in controlled airspace, and NASA has held workshops with this as a major theme. The technology to enable such a revolution in ATC is either available or in the pipeline."

Bushnell cites 4 critical technologies—machine computing capability, sensors, actuators and machine intelligence. "Each of these technologies is in the midst of a massive technological revolution," he says. These advances are making autonomous aircraft increasingly practical.

"Robotics will subsume aviation going forward," Bushnell concludes. "The only question is how rapidly—and the current rate is both extremely rapid and accelerating. Some 85% of accidents in aviation involve human factors, so a robotic system should be even safer. This prospect will not make human pilots or air traffic controllers very happy, but the current rate of technological progress strongly indicates a wholly robotic future for aviation within a few decades."

Ground ops

For civil aviation, the first robots are likely to work on the ground, where they will replace baggage carts, tugs and refuelers. This transition has already begun. A company called Grenzebach Automation, in Karlsruhe, Germany, produces an automated baggage handling system that analyzes the size, weight and type of incoming bags to figure out how they will best fit into a container.

Then a standard industrial robot with a specialized "hand" packs them into containers for transportation to the plane. The system can unload arriving baggage too.

According to the company, using robot loaders can double or triple the amount of baggage operators can handle in a day, cutting costs and reducing flight delays. At the same time, robots eliminate strains and back problems due to moving bags that can weigh up to 88 lbs.

The system is already in operation at AMS (Schiphol, Amsterdam, Netherlands).
For use inside the terminal, Yaskawa Electric's Robo­Porter will lug up to 110 lbs of baggage across a busy airport concourse, saving travelers both time and back pain. The green, 4-ft-high cargo robots are being tested for a few hours each day at KKJ (Kitakyushu, Japan).

Unmanned tugs for airliner-size planes are also in the works. Ricardo, a British engineering company specializing in transportation technology, recently delivered a "TaxiBot" to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

The device began as a standard Krauss Maffei PTS1 aircraft towbarless tractor, but Ricardo added an extra control system. The tug now carriers a "turret" which receives the plane's nosewheel so the pilot can steer the tug. Thus far, the device has been tested with the cockpit and nosewheel from a Boeing 747 and with a full Airbus A340-600 weighing some 350 tons.

IAI pictures the TaxiBot taking over the entire taxi from gate to runway and back. Spokesmen say that not having to rely on the plane's engines to power ground movements could reduce their annual fuel costs from $8 billion to less than $2 billion and cut CO2 emissions from 18 million tons per year to less than 2 million. If testing continues to go well, first deliveries will arrive in 3Q2011.

Upuaut-2 explored the Great Pyramid in 1992. Soon a new robot will breach the final door and reveal the Queen's Chamber.

At this point robot refuelers, like much of aviation robotics, are a military project. Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, located at PAM (Tyndall AFB, Panama City FL) are designing a remotely operated refueling system for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). It will not be limited to the JSF, however.

"With modifications to this technology, the system will work on many other aircraft, including fighters, tankers, cargo aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles," says Mike Sawyer, contractor with the AFRL Robotics Research Team. From there, it will be a short stretch to refueling airliners and bizjets.

In operation, refueling will be carried out by an operator working through video and data links from several hundred feet away. The robot arm that actually performs the refueling is guided by a camera and laser rangefinder.

Once the robot figures out exactly where the fueling port is, it uses a specially designed tool to open the panel door and then switches to the fuel nozzle. The nozzle is then attached to the port and rotated to open the flow path. Once fueling is done—thus far, it has only been simulated—the system reverses the process to disconnect the nozzle, close the port and latch the door.

The system needs a few extra functions before it is ready for actual refueling. Researchers have yet to add electrical bonding, a way to check the fuel status lights, and software compatible with the military's joint architecture for unmanned systems. Field testing will begin once those upgrades are complete.

Unlike civilian operators, the military is not that much concerned with saving money on refueling. Instead, the robot refueler is supposed to improve safety during so-called "hot pit refueling" in which at least one of the plane's engines is still running throughout the process.

Instead of having an entire crew in the pit, only the pilot and a single ground crewman would be at risk during the procedure. Nonetheless, this is another military technology that seems sure to invade civilian aviation as fast as aerospace suppliers can deliver it.


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