Robotics is being integrated into every aspect of everyday life. This mass uptake throughout differing industrial and commercial sectors has been driven by the well-known and wide ranging beneficial characteristics of robotic-labour, in comparison to that afforded by humans.
Owing to this, robotics within the RAF and MOD will be crucial in defining the development of the service over the next century.
Autonomous systems are capable of carrying out a complex series of actions and tasks without the need for training, payment, or rest. For the military, autonomous systems are being employed for a variety of challenging and novel applications, ranging from transportation to attack missions. Crucially for the military, the ability within robotics to undertake ‘human-actions’, also removes the necessity for risking life in hostile scenarios and environments.
A recent conceptual development is the utilisation of autonomous robotic machinery to deal with Foreign Object Debris (FOD) on runways.
FOD costs the aviation sector between £3 billion and £11 billion annually due to flight delays, damaged equipment, reduced efficiencies, and other related costs. The MOD specifically have reported figures in excess of £100 million per annum in costs related to FOD, with stand-out examples including the loss of a Sea Harrier aircraft.
Historic methods of dealing with FOD are time-consuming, expensive, and vulnerable to human error. Airfield sweepers must be managed, magnetic bars need to be cleaned and maintained, and FOD containers need to be used and emptied by airport personnel. Issues in relation to machinery maintenance and their operation have been heightened by the ingrained labour shortage within the RAF. FOD clearance within this rhetoric is highly cost and labour intensive.
A solution to this issue is the development of autonomous robots that are capable of finding and clearing runways through current technologies, such as FOD detection systems. These swarm machines work in coordinated packs, meaning they handle dynamic tasks and runway occurrences without the need for human input and management. This would, therefore, reduce both the large costs related to the clearance of FOD (time, personnel, efficiency) and the even greater costs linked to the impacts of not clearing FOD.
A key challenge for the RAF moving forward is being able to truly understand and be made aware of the technologies that are available for military applications, and how they can be best integrated into the service. Operational systems that rely on human labour have become engrained within the service, meaning strategists and organisational directors can be blinkered to applicable robotic and automated solutions.
There are therefore huge opportunities for companies who can demonstrate their worth through their robotic and autonomous machinery. The integration of these systems will streamline organisational practices and reduce related costs, with the RAF and MOD aware of the excess costs and resources that they are currently expending on these applications.
Owing to this, the RAF are actively looking for innovative and disruptive robotic and autonomous technologies, that will revolutionise the way the service operates.