Airbus Group has embarked on a four-year research project to explore the feasibility of using humanoid robots in aerospace manufacturing.
The technical intricacy and reduced economies of scale involved in aircraft assembly means the industry has yet to embrace the levels of automation we associate with the automotive sector. On top of this, much of the work takes place inside the fuselage where space is limited and robots struggle to operate.
According to Airbus, humanoids helping out on the assembly line will carry out the most laborious and dangerous tasks, freeing workers to perform more skilled operations. The robots will employ a new type of technology called multi-contact locomotion, whereby they will use their entire bodies to make contact with their environment rather than simply their feet. This will enable them to enter confined spaces and perform tasks such as climbing ladders, as well as tighten bolts and remove metallic dust.
The project is a collaboration between Airbus and the Joint Robotics Laboratory (JRL), a French/Japanese partnership that combines prominent scientific institutes from both countries (CNRS and AIST). According to the JRL researchers, the algorithms required to facilitate humanoid movement in confined spaces are extremely complex, as the robots need to bend and twist in a coordinated fashion while working fast enough to be efficient.
The first part of the project will involve developing these algorithms on current HRP-2 and HRP-43 robot models, and testing them in a series of scenarios drawn from the needs of the different branches of Airbus Group (Civil Aviation, Helicopters, and Space). As the project progresses, potential areas of improvement in robotic design will likely be identified, and these could potentially help inform the first generation of humanoids built specifically for large-scale manufacturing.