MARCH 8--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 toward automation to increase throughput and standardize 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--and can be used for applications in confined spaces and can reach many awkward places.
Working with Airbus UK (Filton, UK; www.airbus.com), OC Robotics (Filton, UK; www.ocrobotics.com) has developed a snake-arm robot designed for assembly and inspection tasks within aircraft wings, an area previously inaccessible to automation. Capable of sealing, swaging, and inspection inside a rib bay, the robot is due to begin a program of trials in the near future.
Airbus UK has been working with Kuka Industrial Robots (Halesowen, UK; www.kuka.com) to develop aerospace robots to deliver end-effector packages capable of inspection, swaging, and sealing. 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 "fore-arm" that 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.