Lockeheed Martin's Spider detects and repairs leaks in massive hybrid airship

In order to cut the efforts required to find and fix leaks in Lockheed Martin's massive hybrid airship, the team at the company, designed Spider, a self-propelled instrument for airship damage evaluation and repair.

The company's Skunk Works lab develops manned and unmanned prototype aircraft. Designed to carry cargo and people to places lacking roads, airports and other infrastructure, Lockheed's hybrid airship could make it much easier to access far-flung regions the world.

However, keeping the airship in peak performance condition requires a lot of work. The entire crew has to carry out manual inspection of the airship with flashlights in search of pinhole leaks, according to Bob Boyd, project manager at Lockheed.

But the Spider, a magnetic two-halved autonomous robot that illuminates the outside of the blimp, even as it scans the inside with light sensors to target and repair leaks, makes light work of the inspection routine.

According to Lokheed, it had completed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for a new hybrid airship class, so one could expect to see some commercial versions of the versatile blimp in the future.

"Spider" is the abbreviation for Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation and Repair. The small crawling bots travel all over a blimp's surface while it is inflated. Each bot is actually two parts - one on the inside and one on the outside, connected through the airship's skin by magnets.

The two halves work together by using a bright light and a camera to scan the whole surface of the inflated craft for pinholes, and also use a built-in patching system to fix them when found. The bots also take a picture of the finished work for human overview, and coordinate to make sure a whole airship is covered even if one bot malfunctioned.

According to commentators, over the past decade there had been a resurgence of interest in slow but cheap and reliable airship travel. They say while building the things would be part of the challenge, maintaining them would be another, more persistent one and bots like the Spider could play an important role in the maintenance and upkeep.