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Huntsville robotics company Aerobotix calls itself “a small, privately held business in the defense and space industry center” of Huntsville helping the Pentagon meet its modern defense goals.
That’s a little like Hershey, Pa., saying it does a few things with chocolate. Aerobotix is a growing provider of performance coatings for missiles and protective coatings for other military equipment that gets really hot. Think fighter jet exhaust hot here.
Aerobotix is also one of those companies to remember when your visiting Uncle Joe asks at Christmas, “Just what do all those military contractors around here do, anyway?” Here’s one you can say a little bit about.
Using robots in manufacturing is common now. Auto manufacturers in Huntsville and other Alabama plants use them to assemble and paint vehicles on the production line, for example. But Aerobotix’s robots can be very different.
Cars on an assembly line are all the same and pass their robots the same way every time. Aerobotix robots can do that. They can also circle inside the tight exhaust tunnel of a fighter jet applying 100 layers of protective coating with precision.
“We’re probably on 10 classified programs all over the country,” Vice President Chris Kolb said last week. “Missiles, fighters, bombers, UAVs. It’s a super, super unique niche. There’s not tons of work out there for it, but there’s enough and, as you know from what’s happening in the world, it’s growing.”
The F-22 jet fighter jet is one example of how robots are changing modern military methods. A life-size model of an F-22 tail sits in the Aerobotix warehouse.
“Humans were crawling in there to recoat all those F-22s out there in the field. They have seven different coatings in that inlet, and one of them is super thick and takes a hundred coats of paint,” Kolb said. “And humans were crawling around in there trying to put precision coatings in there to recoat these things.
“We had done these inlets with robotics back when they manufactured these,” Kolb said pointing at a part of the model. “We raised our hands and said we can do those on a full-up aircraft. They said, ‘No, you can’t.’ We said, ‘Yes, we can.’”
The company could and did on a test model, and the Air Force now has six robots programmed by Aerobotix helping paint crews at the airfield. The robots cut the work time by two-thirds.
A new hot market for robotic coating is hypersonic missiles – missiles that fly faster than sound – and Aerobotix in May marked the installation of its 40th robotic system to coat missiles and parts on assembly lines. The company’s nearness to Lockheed Martin’s hypersonic missile factory in Courtland, Ala., will likely mean more business. Robotics are a key tool to keep those missiles coming down the line.
“Hypersonics has boomed as a pillar in the series of pillars that hold this company up,” Kolb said. “That one’s just getting bigger and bigger. It’s kind of changing us as a company. We were all fighters, bombers, UAVs, and now speed is the new stealth.”
Aerobotix invested $1 million in technology to be able to coat hypersonic missiles here, he said. The Courtland plant isn’t built yet, but Aerobotix is already putting performance coatings on test missiles.
So far, the company has performed these early application tests for larger missile companies. Aerobotix relies on speed and adaptability to fit those companies’ needs. “Anything with coatings, we can do it and do it fast,” lead operations manager Keith Pfeifer said.
Pfeifer is also an example of how aerospace and defense staffing can work today. A Purdue graduate, he’s been going back to the campus “and getting similar majors” to come to Huntsville. Kolb says half-jokingly that a third of the company’s current team graduated from Purdue.
Inside the plant during a recent visit, a robot is “tuning the thickness” of a coating on a missile form to meet customer specifications. The “form” is a cylinder the same size as the missile’s body, and the robot is adding precise layer after layer of performance coating.
“We reduce the risk and get them going with this test article,” Kolb said. “They see the automation and say, ‘That’s a safe bet’ and buy the automation from us.”
The company also makes use of lidar (light detection and ranging). The robot “recognizes what room it’s in, it recognizes where it’s at in that room and then it goes up and performs the process,” Pfeifer said. “It literally can be a lights-out process. Nobody’s sitting there running it.”
Who’s doing this work in Huntsville other than Purdue grads? Military tech companies once had a reputation as boys’ clubs, but women engineers like Sammy Stejska are more than welcome at modern defense contractors like Aerobotix. They’re actively sought. “Phenomenal” is the word her bosses use to describe Stejska’s work.
“Very detailed oriented as engineers,” Pfeifer said. “Very, very detail oriented.”