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US Navy turns to hull-climbing bots to combat maintenance backlog

Seals are totally yesterday's news - the Navy's latest critter is a Gecko

video Never mind seals, the US Navy is turning to geckos to improve its ship inspection capabilities. Much like their amphibiously named comrades, these robots are geckos in name – and wall-climbing capabilities – only. 

The bots come from Gecko Robotics, which said last week it had reached a deal with the Navy to supply it with the company's Toka series bots. The devices use ultrasound sensors and wheels made from rare-earth magnets to quickly (they climb about 60 ft/18 meters per minute) and easily scale the hulls of ships in drydock for maintenance. 

In a video released prior to the Navy's approval of the ferritic surface-climbing bots, the company said its system can complete an inspection 10 times faster than one consisting of humans, while also collecting 1,000 times the data points. According to US Navy data cited by Gecko, the bots can reduce person hours for ship hull and rudder inspection by a whopping 36 days, and lead time for such inspections from 11 days to just one. 

Youtube Video

If used across all four regional naval maintenance centers, the Navy could save 575 equivalent drydock days per year, Gecko claimed. 

"We are proud to have a mature technology that has been tested and approved by both Navy technical leaders and the sustainment officials charged with reducing the Navy's maintenance backlog," said Jake Loosararian, Gecko's CEO and co-founder.

The US Navy had previously approved Gecko's Rapid Ultrasonic Gridding inspection process, which uses the climbing robots to collect thickness maps of material like ship hulls facing constant corrosion risks from salt water and exposure to the elements. Those are in turn used to build digital twins of ships onto which thickness measurements are overlaid to indicate which parts of the ship need the most attention. 

Gecko has been approved to perform inspections on the Navy's first amphibious assault ships and Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

The company also has a contract with the US Air Force, which tapped it late last year to perform inspections at ICBM sites overseen through the Sentinel Program. Gecko has also been used in the oil and gas, manufacturing and energy industries, including in the United Arab Emirates, thanks to a deal signed late last year with that country's Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology to provide its bots for infrastructure inspections.

More shipyards needed to tackle repair backlog – or maybe bots?

Admiral Daryl Caudle, commander of the US Fleet Forces Command, which oversees naval resources including personnel, training and ship maintenance, said shortly after taking command in late 2021 that the Navy should be "offended" by its maintenance backlog. 

Caudle said in early 2022 that US Naval repair resources were at capacity "so any time we insert a new ship into that, that's going to be an applecart-upsetting event, and it's going to propagate that effect throughout other major availabilities," Caudle told reporters at last year's Surface Navy Association conference. 

In his speech at this year's SNA conference, Caudle said things had improved – but still aren't up to snuff. He noted that 36 month maintenance availability was taking an average of 45 months and that, quite simply, the Navy needs more dry docks. 

While it currently operates four, Caudle said he could do with bringing that number to six. "I've got a pretty good size Navy, too much of it's being held in abeyance in our yards," Caudle remarked. Geckos aren't shipyards, but they might still help the Navy shrink that maintenance backlog a bit. 

"We must find efficiencies to restore the readiness and availability of our fleet," Caudle said. ®

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