Airships, which are distinct from blimps by being much more rigid and sounding much less silly, are one of those unusual technologies that has been undergoing a resurgence recently after falling out of favor half a century ago. Airships have potential to be a very practical and cost effective way to move massive amounts of stuff from one place to another place, especially if the another place is low on infrastructure and has a reasonable amount of patience.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has been developing a particular kind of airship called a hybrid airship, which uses a combination of aerodynamics and lifting gas to get airborne, for the last decade or so. The P-791 technology demonstrator first flew in 2006, and a company called Hybrid Enterprises is taking Lockheed’s airship technology to commercialization. Their LMH-1 will be able to carry over 20,000 kilograms of whatever you want, along with 19 passengers, up to 2,500 kilometers, and it’s going to be a real thing: Hybrid Airships recently closed a US $480 million contract to built 12 of them for cargo delivery.
As part of the construction and ongoing maintenance of an airship, it’s important to inspect the envelope (the chubby bit that holds all the helium) for tiny holes that, over time, can have a significant impact on the airship’s ability to fly. The traditional way to do this involves humans, and like most things involving humans, it’s an expensive and time consuming process. To help out, Lockheed Martin has developed “Self-Propelled Instruments for Damage Evaluation and Repair,” or SPIDERs, which are teams of robots that can inspect airship skins for holes as well as representing one of the less ludicrous robot acronyms that we’ve seen recently.
For details on SPIDER, we spoke with hybrid airship engineer Ben Szpak about where the idea came from, how the robot works, and what their plans are for the future.