With an increasing reliance on automated processes in manufacturing, repairs and inspections, the aerospace industry is set to undergo a robotics revolution in the coming years.

According to a 2022 report from Polaris Market Research, the global aerospace robotics market is growing by nearly 12 percent annually and will reach a market value of $7.23 billion by 2030.

Already today, robots are in wide use across the aviation value chain. Manufacturing robots play an important role in assembling aircraft and their individual parts. In the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector, robots carry out safety inspections, perform repairs, transport components, clean aircraft and much more.

While MRO robots were taking on expanded roles well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry downturn accelerated the smart use of robotic technology. Now that aviation has bounced back quicker than expected, the role that robots play is almost certain to expand widely and rapidly. Promising greater efficiency and improved safety, robots are increasingly seen as a way to ease the strains caused by the industry’s labour shortage.

But can robots really replace human expertise and is that even a future that we should want? We attended the MRO Europe conference in London to hear what role industry experts envision for robots and what their increased use will mean for the human workforce.

Engine manufacturers showing the way

Those the Satair Knowledge Hub spoke with agreed that the era of MRO robotics is only just beginning. For GE Aviation, the pandemic sped up a process that has been underway for roughly a decade and picked up significant steam with the 2017 purchase of OC Robotics, creators of snake-arm inspection, cleaning and repair robots.

“Especially after COVID, we've looked to robotics to really try and improve our processes [and] how we can automate what we do day to day,” GE Aviation’s Services Operations Leader Ross Thorpe said. “We have gone away from processes where we have someone with a clipboard and pen going around an engine and documenting it to taking images and implementing a robotics solution.”

Adam Mallion, Senior Business and Project Manager at OC Robotics, said that his company’s long mechanical arms that can fit into tight spaces allow for inspections that simply cannot be done by humans.

“[Robotics create] improvements in safety for our parts and for our engines,” he said. “We need to get inside and do work on these engines that we can't do with our current workforce.”

From days to minutes

In addition to the types of snake-arm robotic technology pioneered by OC Robotics and others, nanobots are also being used for inspections and repairs. Rolls-Royce, for example, uses what it calls “swarm robots” to crawl through engines to carry out inspections in confined spaces.

Pratt & Whitney is also using robotics to streamline its operations. Karine Lavoie-Tremblay, the engine maker’s Director of Commercial Engines Digital Transformation, said that the company is working toward fully robotic inspections in which a robot will pick up a part, run a full 3D inspection and feed that data to a cloud-based system, where it is analysed for repair recommendations. All of this happens with no manual intervention and in virtually no time at all.

"That [process] takes minutes. Traditionally, it could take days or even weeks to get to that level,” she said. “It is very exciting to see.”

While these engine manufacturers demonstrate the various ways robotics are currently changing the MRO landscape, the consensus among those we interviewed was that the industry is just getting started.

“I think robotics have a huge role going forward over the next five to ten years within the MRO industry and within aviation in general,” Mallion said. “As we increase the types of inspections and maintenance we do to improve the safety of our products in the field, we're going to need new technologies. We can't do it with the current skills that we've got [or] inspection technologies that are decades old. Robotics and automated technologies are going to be a really big part of that.”

Labour shortage solution?

If robots begin to play an even larger role in the MRO sector, it raises a very obvious and concerning question. What will that mean for the human workforce?

As in most industries, MRO robotics are largely designed to take over the “3 Ds”, jobs that are dull, dirty and dangerous. The basic idea is that when a robot performs these types of tasks, it frees human employees up for other more involved and rewarding tasks.

Sajedah Rustom, CEO of AJW Technique, said while she thinks robotics will fulfil a key role when it comes to manual tasks, the often unique nature of needed repairs means that there is no replacement for human knowledge that is often built up over a long career.

“Commoditizing a lot of the workflow in the MRO is a challenge because it relies on a lot of human expertise,” Rustom said. “I think [the further adoption of robotics] will allow the industry to let people do what only people can do, and that means we’ll raise the bar on the type of workforce and the expertise within the workforce.”

She added that robotics can help drive “an industry transformation” by allowing the flesh-and-bone workforce to move away from manual, repetitive tasks and instead focus on more specialised, skilled roles.

Mallion agreed. He said robots can be “a really viable solution to help with the labour shortage in the industry”, not only by directly carrying out jobs that humans either can’t or don’t particularly want to do but by making it easier for workers to carry out more complex tasks.

“We need new technologies to come in and make a lower barrier of entry for new inspectors and new repairers to do the jobs that they've got to do. I think robotics can really add value there,” Mallion said.

Some even argued that the industry can leverage robotics to draw in new talent. Joost Groenenboom, aviation principal at the consultancy ICF, said that younger workers may be more inclined to view robotic technology positively, as opposed to an older generation that sees it as a threat.

"I think [robotics are] more attractive to the current generation,” he said. “People coming out of universities now will have that background while older generations would not have had that exposure.”

No turning back

The ability of robotic technology to attract a new generation of workers remains to be seen. For the time being, so does the overall impact on the current workforce.

But one thing is certain: robots will undoubtedly carry out an increasing number of maintenance, inspection, repair and logistics tasks in the future. They’ll likely also fulfil roles that we can’t currently foresee. It seems unlikely that the industry will hit the brakes on the robotic revolution.

“It's a process that will continue because robotics will allow you to be more consistent and be more precise. There are lower failure rates, there's less waste. So it's something that's going to grow and it will benefit the industry as a whole because it reduces cost,” Groenenboom said.