The Future of Automated Guided Vehicles for Aerospace and Defense

Next-generation AGVs are already starting to deliver labor and cost savings for the U.S. defense industry, and the commercial aerospace sector is watching closely.

Today's AGVs aren't your grandparents' AGVs.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first automated guided vehicle, and AGVs have been moving things around on humans’ behalf ever since. But today’s AGVs aren’t your grandparents’ AGVs, and their sophistication is catching up with the 21st-century demands of manufacturing and maintenance tasks for the aerospace and defense industries.

A close-up of the advanced microwave mapping probe. (Image: Compass Technology Group)

An AGV is a robot that travels along marked lines or wires on the floor, or uses radio waves, vision cameras, magnets or lasers for navigation. Nowadays, systems with newer technology might also be called autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), but the first automated guided vehicle was built back in 1953 when Arthur “Mac” Barrett modified a towing tractor so that it could follow an overhead wire.

Mac’s company, Barrett Electronics Corporation, began selling his driver-less vehicle in 1954 as the Guide-o-Matic, and AGVs were commonplace by the end of the 20th century as a solution for repetitive manual labor tasks. AGVs have long been used to transport materials around factories and warehouses in a wide range of industries, including aerospace and defense. Now, next-generation AGVs are already starting to deliver additional labor and cost savings for the U.S. defense industry, and the commercial aerospace sector is watching closely.

High Value, Low Infrastructure

The first collaborative mobile robot to be used in U.S. Air Force maintenance depots, this adaptive radome diagnostic system (ARDS) manipulates an advanced microwave mapping probe (AMMP) that rides on a custom-built automated guided vehicle (AGV). (Image: Compass Technology Group)

The value of mobile self-navigating robots, such as the AGV that was built for WR-ALC, lies in their ability to be rapidly repurposed to service multiple objectives in several locations. Next-generation AGVs will become increasingly indispensable in aerospace and defense because they allow you to reap the benefits of introducing a robotic system into a facility without adding a lot of supporting infrastructure.

Right now, for example, the AGV at WR-ALC has been programmed for a particular building at that site, but the system’s portability means it could be easily redeployed to a different building. It would then just be a matter of having the LiDAR sensor map the layout of the new location before putting the robot back to work.

If an AGV is sufficiently versatile, in addition to using it to complete the same task in a different location, you can reprogram and repurpose the unit for a different task that requires a robot of the same size and capabilities. In this way, mobile robots are compatible with the “Factory of the Future” concept, which recommends that manufacturers enhance production by using smart robots to make the plant structure more flexible and multipurpose.

Robots are increasingly easy to program and reprogram and, for example, the FANUC-brand cobot that powers the AGV at WR-ALC is promoted as “the perfect solution for manufacturers with little to no robotic experience.” FANUC’s CRX series offers all-new lead-through programming features and a new teach-pendant user interface with simple drag-and-drop programming.

A mobile robot fits around the worksite, rather than requiring the worksite to fit around the robot. These next-generation AGVs offer all the advantages of automation but with the flexibility of the robot not needing to be pinned in place, and without the expense and hassle of having to drill machinery anchors into concrete or dig trenches for giant robot rails.

Applications Beyond the Maintenance Depot

Captured by a Velodyne Lidar-brand “Puck” sensor, this single-scan image begins the process of mapping a workspace for the adaptive radome diagnostic system. (Image: Compass Technology Group)

The mobile robot technology now being used in Air Force maintenance also has potential applications in aerospace and defense manufacturing — for prime contractors as well as the supporting ecosystem of subcontractors and component manufacturers.

Whatever a manufacturer is making, measuring, assembling or coating — from boats and planes to tanks and missiles — AGVs can potentially assist, especially as the technology becomes more advanced.

In addition to delivering labor and cost savings, robots can improve accuracy and quality while removing human workers from hazardous environments. For example, when jet-engine inlets are coated manually, workers must often wear protective suits and respirators and spend hundreds of hours crawling around on their hands and knees inside the inlet. Under those conditions, it’s nearly impossible for the workers to manually apply coatings at consistent speeds and thicknesses. Automation helps the low-observable materials meet specific tolerance and thickness levels required for flight approval. Improved accuracy also gives the aircraft a better performance signature against radar.

A composite image of multiple scans of the workspace provides more comprehensive mapping data. Near the middle of the image, we can now identify the radome that the self-navigating robot will be analyzing. (Image: Compass Technology Group)

While the latest AGVs can already deliver significant benefits for the aerospace and defense industries, the technology is continuing to evolve. This will further strengthen its offering and bring down purchase costs.

One challenge that remains for AGV providers is how to more cost-effectively achieve accuracy for mobile robots that are required to perform very detail-oriented tasks. With NDE solutions often only able to promise accuracy of plus or minus an inch, greater accuracy can currently be achieved, but requires the use of additional blind-spot sensors, which increase an AGV’s build cost and complexity.

Another limitation of the current technology is that although next-generation AGVs are already getting smarter, their adaptability and self-sufficiency are constrained by the limits of the artificial intelligence of their various components. As those components — including base robots, AMMPs and LiDAR sensors — develop further, AGV systems will become more sophisticated, enabling them to make more decisions in more worksite scenarios that their programmers hadn’t anticipated. For example, future technology development will automate measurements to other aircraft components that are different sizes and shapes. Future development will also adapt other sensor technologies besides microwave NDE to these autonomous robotic systems.

A composite image is also created of the radome in isolation, to aid the robot in finding and analyzing the part. (Image: Compass Technology Group)

Meanwhile, the biggest hurdle that next-generation AGVs must overcome is scalability. With many aerospace and defense clients still taking delivery of their first mobile robot, and with most of these AGVs being custom builds, the technology’s production hasn’t yet been scaled and its costs therefore remain relatively high. Those costs can, however, be offset over time by the improved efficiencies that an AGV will achieve for an organization.

Bringing the Technology to Commercial Aerospace

We know that the commercial aerospace sector is paying close attention to the use of next-generation AGVs in the defense industry. But we also know that the commercial sector is more risk-averse and cost-focused than its government-funded counterpart.

Of course, the government sector is risk-averse too, but the military has deeper pockets, which allow it to more easily mitigate the risks of developing and testing new technology. Moreover, commercial aerospace manufacturers often – and quite understandably so – subscribe to the maxim of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Industry leaders might not, therefore, be willing to consider new technology until it’s already established a strong track record elsewhere.

For those reasons, the commercial aerospace industry is still likely several years away from starting to use next-generation AGVs in earnest. Meanwhile, providers of self-navigating mobile robots will continue to roll out and refine the technology in the defense sector. That sector is not only hungry for the technology; it’s also funding a lot of the requisite research and development.

This article was written by Dr. John Schultz, Chief Scientist at Compass Technology Group, and Aaron Feick, a network engineer at Aerobatix. For more information, visit here .