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Snake-Arm Robots Steer Aircraft Assembly in a New Direction
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Nov 26, 2006
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Working with Airbus, OC Robotics has achieved the first major milestone for a snake-arm robot designed for assembly and inspection tasks within aircraft wings – an area previously inaccessible to automation.

OC Robotics has completed build and initial testing of a demonstration snake-arm robot capable of sealing, swaging and inspection inside a mock-up of a rib bay. The robot is due to begin an intensive programme of trials in the near future.

Compared to the automotive industry, the aerospace industry has been slow to introduce industrial robotics onto its assembly lines. This is mainly due to the high accuracy needed over large structures. Recently there has been a general move towards automation in order to increase throughput and standardise processes, however tasks within rib bays and other confined spaces inside aircraft structures have remained practically impossible, until now. Unlike standard robots, snake-arm robots do not have prominent ‘elbows’. They have a continuous curving shape – like a snake. This means that they are ideal for applications in confined spaces and can reach lots of awkward places.

robotAirbus UK has been working with Kuka, a global supplier of industrial robots, to develop aerospace robots to deliver end effector packages capable of inspection, swaging and sealing. When approached by Airbus to find a solution to low access automation, OC Robotics proposed using a snake-arm robot as an additional tool that the larger industrial robot would deliver. The snake-arm robot acts as a flexible extension to the industrial robot and is fed through the access hole by the Kuka robot. The snake-arm can follow a path into the wing box using the Kuka as a delivery tool.

The snake-arm robot is equipped with a wrist and tool interface to allow attachment of a variety of different tools designed by OC Robotics. Initial tests show the arm is flexible enough to deliver the required tools to areas of the wing box that were previously inaccessible to automation, to perform tasks such as final sealant application and swaging.

In the future the OC Robotics Extender range of snake-arms will mean that every industrial robot will be able to have a suitable snake-arm extension for reaching into confined spaces.

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