Snake-Arm Robots – A New Tool for the Aerospace Industry 2003-01-2952
This paper introduces a type of robot, called a snake-arm robot, which offers the potential to change aircraft assembly and maintenance processes in order to reduce costs and lead times.
A snake-arm robot has many segments and belongs to the family of hyper-redundant robots. The appeal of this type of device is that a snake-arm uses its many segments, controlled by a nose-following algorithm, to reach into restricted access spaces in a minimally obtrusive manner.
In addition to nose following, a second artifact of the OCRobotics design is the use of flexible rather than rigid segments. Whilst this improves the ability of the arm to reach into awkward spaces, it also means that the arm is compliant and has the potential to be used unguarded in human environments.
Historically industrial robots have been developed for the automotive industry and are not widely used for aircraft assembly. This is partly because the challenges of aircraft manufacture and maintenance are quite dissimilar to those of the car industry. Differences include production volumes, size and range of components, process tolerances and the level of control over the working environment. The assembly of aircraft stubbornly remains a ‘craft industry’.
If significant cost reductions are to be achieved through increased use of automation then process change needs to happen in parallel with the development of new tools and technologies. Whilst some of these technologies can be transferred from other sectors, other ideas need to be pulled through by the aircraft industry for the aircraft industry.
This paper explains how snake-arm robots operate and identifies strengths that may be relevant to various aircraft assembly and maintenance procedures including inspection, cleaning, application of sealant, painting, laser welding, leak detection, NDT and riveting.
The paper concludes with progress in the area of explosive ordnance disposal. This military application demonstrates key features of similar technology that could be applied to the aerospace industry.