Lockheed's New Robot Climbs on Blimps to Find Leaks
The humble blimp, a lighter-than-air inflatable craft propelled by a motor, has historically had two large design obstacles to overcome since being introduced in 1852. One was the decision to pump its large bladder full of highly flammable hydrogen, which resulted in the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. The second was that its gas chamber, even when full of non-flammable helium, could still conceivably spring a leak.
Lockheed’s Skunk Works division believes it has a solution. They’ve introduced the SPIDER, or Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation and Repair, a robot that crawls around the blimp’s surface, known as the envelope, to check for punctures. The device is split into two magnetized halves, which are placed on the inner and outer surfaces—the exterior half shines a beam, while the other half is able to spot the light coming through an otherwise pitch-black interior. If a hole is detected, the SPIDER can perform an on-site repair.
Photographs of the puncture pre- and post-repair are taken so a human supervisor can evaluate it. The process saves considerable time over the standard method of manually inspecting a deflated blimp for leaks or standing guard 24 hours a day to make sure it doesn’t incur any damage.
While this seems like it would be of great use to Goodyear and MetLife, which maintain fleets of blimps for promotional purposes, the airships are also used to collect meteorological data and transmit wireless internet. Lockheed itself has plans to utilize its Hybrid Airships, which use minimal fuel, to haul heavy cargo.