Satellites and autonomous drones have reduced our need for cutting-edge spy planes and stealth fighters. So Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, creators of the SR-71 Blackbird, have now built a unique robot called the Spider that can crawl over the surface of blimps to find and fix tiny pinhole leaks. Inspecting an airship's fabric inflatable envelope is usually a process done manually, requiring intensely bright handheld lights, a good set of eyes and the craft to be completely deflated. It's time-consuming and terribly inefficient, but Spider — short for Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation and Repair — can perform the same inspections while the craft is fully inflated.
The robot consists of two magnetically-attached halves, one that sits on the outside of the airship, while the other clings to it from the inside. Using a set of bright LED lights and a camera, the Spider bot can automatically spot pinhole leaks, and then reposition itself to patch them. Photos of the repair, before and after the hole is patched, are sent to a central server for further human inspection, but that adds minimal time to the mostly automated inspection process.
As airships are slowly becoming useful again — for tasks including everything from cargo hauling, to meteorological data gathering, to spreading free internet — there will undoubtedly be a demand for Lockheed's Spider bot. It might not be as cool or Smithsonian-worthy as the SR-71 spy plane, but it's a clever solution for keeping airships airworthy.