It is very quickly becoming clear to anyone following the tech market trends that autonomous and automated guided vehicles are exploding with exponential growth. Particular to the aviation industry is the Unmanned Aerospace Vehicle (“drone”) market which has absolutely taken the world by storm, far aside the aerospace industry alone. Drones are evolving far faster than end users are even able to imagine uses, and are expanding capabilities well outside of the original market niche of aerial imagery and videography. Drones are now capable of the aerial application of pesticides, cleaning power lines, and have even been implemented in capacities of inspecting the interior of industrial boilers with thermal imagery. Independent ventures are building prototypes capable of carrying a single person, which can be flown by the person on board or flown on a pre-determined flight path. But the automated vehicle market is hardly limited to just drones and automobiles.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are not a new concept, but the technology to support, sustain, and produce them is. The idea of a driverless car has been around for ages, yet we are just now beginning to see the first fruits of those ideas in driverless automobiles. However, automobiles are really just the most visible and exciting use of AGVs; the practical applications garner far less media attention than their brethren on the roadways, yet their impact will be felt by far more people.
The aviation and aerospace industry is a natural fit for the capabilities which AGVs provide, in terms of industrial applications. AGVs may someday do very well at highway speeds, but they are already perfectly suited for the demands of an industrial environment, particularly aviation and aerospace manufacturing, or at maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facilities.
Use of Automated Guided Vehicles in Aircraft Manufacturing and Production
Aircraft and aerospace production facilities and factories are generally very large due to the nature of the work. But in spite of the huge size of the hangars used, space is at a premium. The components being transported throughout the manufacturing areas, whether they be wings, fuselages, or even engine pods and nacelles, are staggeringly large and the areas of which they are being maneuvered are surprisingly tight. The reality is that the highest risk for error in the chain of events of moving aircraft sections is human error.
AGVs give manufacturers the ability to map out predetermined routes for components to move throughout a factory, routes which are exacting down to literal millimeters. Cameras allow each AGV to follow an exact route within three millimeters of the guiding line, and prompts the machine to stop at an exact position. Extremely tight parameters mean something in an assembly line, and using a conveyance which puts components on the exact, desired location every single time cannot be replicated with a human operator. There are too many variables opposing a human operator to ensure exact product placement every single time, and this costs valuable man hours.
AGVs for more profitability and safety
There is a profound safety factor in using automated guided vehicles within a factory setting. First, they follow the exact same route every single time with no possibility of variance. This allows the factory to predetermine travel lanes for major movements with the peace of mind that human error will not cause an incident. As long as workers abide by established walkways, the AGVs will always ensure that their payload will stay exactly where they are intended to be. Productivity will be improved as workers can safely work alongside AGVs in operation, and timelines of component arrival will always be accurate because en route transit times will never vary with an AGV.
One of the most profound capabilities of an AGV unit, such as those produced by Mototok of Germany, is the use of multiple units independently programmed to operate for a synchronized purpose. For instance, two AGV carts on an assembly line may be used to transport an aircraft fuselage along the assembly line. The two carts are completely unattached or tethered to one another, yet they are programmed to work in perfect unison allowing compound maneuvering to optimize space used for the route.
Another profound benefit to the use of automated guided vehicles in manufacturing is their ability to position large sections of the aircraft so precisely, and do so identically every single time. This is an invaluable asset when large sub-assemblies require placement with very exacting tolerances for assembly. This will lead to not only much higher levels of efficiency in terms of having the right part in exactly the correct position, exactly when it is supposed to be there, but significantly reduced risk of damage between components since the human error factor will be nullified.
Automated guided vehicles for aircraft Movement at Maintenance Depots and MROs
Imagine the foreman of a depot maintenance facility being able to push out a completed aircraft and subsequently pull in the next aircraft without having to assign any manpower to the task. This is no longer a far-fetched notion, but is instead a completely realistic proposition by employing AGVs to the task. Aircraft movement into and out of maintenance hangars using traditional means of a tractor tug and tow bar generally employs at least four and often five members to complete the task safely, and there is a definite skill set associated with the task. Every time an employee goes and is replaced, there is a significant investment of time and experience which is lost and must be re-established. Automated guided vehicles have no learning curve; they simply follow programming and provide predictable results every time.
By establishing a set parking procedure and location, MROs can harness the autonomous capabilities inherent to AGVs and move aircraft into and out of hangars with the stroke of a button. It is conceivable that this action can be accomplished during established break times or during shift changes so that workers can come straight out to the next project awaiting, which will even further optimize operations. During traditional aircraft movements, only mandatory members of the movement are generally allowed in the immediate vicinity of the operation, which renders all other parties essentially without function for the duration of the movement. Since an AGV operates autonomously, it will function just as well during break times or shift changes as it would during the middle of a shift, so it gives supervisors a great ability to fully realize productivity.
Using AGVs at Airline Terminals
Airline terminals at large hubs represent perhaps the greatest potential application for AGV aircraft tugs. The simple push backs often associated with airport terminal operations generally consist of pushing the aircraft straight back for a distance on average of 50-70 meters, and making a single turn to place the aircraft on the taxiway centerline. This is a scenario where an automated guided vehicle really shines because the aircraft park at the same location every time, and require pushing back to the same point (or points, depending on which active runway is in use) every time. A single AGV would be able to support two terminal gates, freeing up valuable personnel to work elsewhere as a single person would be able to oversee both gates. The AGV would be programmed to return to its docking station after each push using the same, predictable route of travel every time.
One of the major drawback of a tractor tug and tow bar combination is the amount of time and effort it requires an operator to become proficient in use. Conversely, an AGV would only necessitate the overseer to understand basic emergency stop and disconnect procedures which greatly reduces the learning curve. They also provide the peace of mind to pilots and ramp workers alike that the aircraft is going to follow the centerline precisely during the entire process which all but eliminates the possibility of unintentional mishaps as long as the gangway and all ground support equipment is properly stowed.
Conclusion: Automated guided vehicles will continue to revolutionize the aviation and aerospace industry
The matter of automated or automatic guided vehicles becoming an ever growing segment of the aviation and aerospace industry is clearly not a matter of ‘if’, but a matter of ‘how’ and ‘when’. The aforementioned applications are probably only the tip of the iceberg; if you had told someone just five years ago all of the present applications which UAVs are serving, it would have been very difficult to fathom those possibilities in such a short period of time, yet it is happening. The imagination is seemingly the only boundary for AGVs, whether they be the wheeled variety, or winged. A number of cutting edge manufacturers continue to explore and and expand the possibilities, and advances will likely continue to come faster and faster, with generations between each technological breakthrough growing shorter at exponential rates. Keep your eyes on the horizon and ears to the ground for what this emerging technology has to offer.
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