Ever wonder how Lockheed Martin ensures that its blimps are safe to fly? Look no further than SPIDER.
Developed in the company's secretive Skunk Works division, SPIDER (Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation and Repair) solves a big challenge faced by the airship industry: pinholes. It takes over the "long, tedious and manual" process of human workers searching the craft's surface (known as the envelope) for miniscule punctures.
"We created SPIDER to allow for inspection of the envelope in parallel with final assembly and maintenance actions," Skunk Works mechanical engineer Ben Szpak said in the video below. "This significantly reduces the number of man hours required for efficient operations of the airship."
Engineers can simply place each half of the magnetized machine on either side of the fabric (one inside, one outside) to scan for and patch pinholes.
The outer half shines light on the airship surface, while the inner half detects pinholes using light sensors from inside the dark envelope, according to Cheryl Limas, Skunk Works software engineer. Once a hole is located, SPIDER aligns itself, repairs it and sends before and after pictures to the central processing station for verification.
"The central hub also handles all cooperative searching of the envelope," Limas explained. "If a robot fails, search patterns can be changed on the other robots to efficiently complete full inspection."
Today, Lockheed's blimps can provide tactical and strategic airlifts, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. According to the company, they boast significant fuel economy and reduced operating costs compared to some other major modes of transportation like airplanes and cargo ships.