The Pentagon plans to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to create a new generation of unmanned vehicles for various land, sea and air applications. Those devices will require a wide variety of state-of-the-art robotics, sensors, electronics, vision systems, grippers, controls, batteries and other components
Traditionally, most unmanned military vehicles are built by hand. That’s because production volumes have been relatively small.
For instance, approximately 800 PackBots were assembled by iRobot Corp. last year. “PackBots are assembled manually on a balanced line made up of subassembly cells that flow to the final integration and test station,” says Ames. “Robots are not used to assemble the PackBot.
“All PackBots are built on the same assembly line,” adds Ames. “The line is rebalanced as needed to allow for variations in product configuration. The subassemblies are moderately complex. There are several subassemblies, including the chassis, arm, head and radio. Each of these has multiple components.”
As unmanned vehicles become more important to the military, production volumes have been growing annually. Manufacturers that traditionally built manned systems are applying many of the same assembly principles to their unmanned product lines.
“In almost all cases, UAVs are built on multi-model mix assembly lines,” notes Don Gaw, director of unmanned military system production at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, which produces the Global Hawk fixed wing aircraft and the Fire Scout helicopter. “These lines are separate from the manned vehicles, just as the different manned vehicles are separated.
“However, one of the challenges the UAV presents are infinite variables to the mission, thus a UAV platform can undergo many changes,” Gaw points out. “In the past, planes were often built in blocks and as improvements or mission changes were identified, they were scheduled to be ‘cut’ in at a certain block.
“UAVs by their nature are more fluid and, as such, ‘spiral’ changes dictate custom configurations of payloads,” explains Gaw. “Sometimes, a platform lends itself to multiple missions, but may require airframe changes such as airfoils, gear, deicing or other changes. When these are specific and require different tooling, especially if they are for a specific customer, a separate line will be considered.”
As UAV demand ramps up in the future, many manufacturers will be eager to use automation to streamline production. “This is always a consideration,” claims Jim Glowacki, director of manufacturing at AAI Corp., an operating unit of Textron Systems. “But, in order to move toward more automation to reap the production efficiencies, the ROI requires a significant volume.”
Glowacki’s company currently builds about 100 UAVs annually. Its most popular model is the RQ-7B Shadow, a tactical aircraft with a 14-foot wingspan that’s used by both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps.
“There [has been a] considerable increase in automation, especially in composites and this has been evaluated,” adds Glowacki. “[However], the volumes haven’t been high enough to justify the initial investment costs. As the setup costs or capital costs decline and the technology becomes more stable, and in parallel the volumes increase, it [will be] an absolute alternative.” A