An interview with Bristol based OC Robotics who produce robotic snake arms. Conducted at Farnborough Air Show.
Hi Tim, would you mind telling our readers about who your company is and what you do?
OC Robotics small company Bristol and we make snake arm robots, that is our core business. Robots for confined spaces, spaces where it’s difficult or dangerous for a human to get in to. You can use a snake arm robot, which is a very flexible robot to get inside, and take tools to do whatever process you need doing.
The biggest challenge is money as ever.
Our first 5 years were R&D, working out how to best make and control these snake arms. Whilst in the last 5 years we have been taking these snake arms and working out how other sectors would use them and their best uses.
And the challenge is money, it is getting money to do projects with the big companies, it is challenging for a small company to get in with big companies and do some useful work.
What industries have shown the most interest in Snake Arms?
It was the aerospace industry but then the recession hit and the industry locked down its R&D budgets.
Since then, it has been in the nuclear industry, not the UK abroad, but actually it has been from abroad. Abroad they seem to take more risks in buying this equipment!
Companies have bought them and they are being used at the moment during power outages in nuclear power plants
What do you find particularly interesting/exciting about the program?
It is a unique technology, we are only company in world, and no one else does this.
We are still a small company and its fun to work in a small company with very clever people who are making this work.
We see there being more nuclear applications and working closer with aerospace as well. We want to get the Snake Arm used on assembly floors on the legacy aircraft and the new design and build aircraft.
Are there any military applications for the Snake Arm?
Absolutely! We have worked with MOD and DOD on large and small Snake Arms, which is on-going
The main application is surveillance; you can use the Snake Arm to look inside suspect things. For the MOD we made quite a large snake arm that went on to long cress vehicle sort of a small tank. The tank was used to drive up to vehicles and the snake was used to snake in through windows and under the car to search it.
What has the feedback been like?
It has been very good; we are still in contact and still talking to them on different projects
Could you provide some statistics on what the Snake Arm is capable of doing?
The Snake Arms you see here are for aerospace and have capacity of 5 kg they can carry. The ones made for the mod were designed to pull a car! Once it suspected the car if it found it didn’t like it could hook onto the car and pull it away!
Other arms we are making are 4 half meters long with a capacity of 20 kg. But it is important to remember that the design depends on where you are using the arms, such as if using them under water or in the air.
The largest is 4 and half meters long, 150 ml diameter, with a 20 kilo payload; it is a bit of a monster!
How can you control the arm?
There are 3 ways using it. The first is manually. You control the tip and direction, which draws a path 3D space. The rest of the arm will follow where the snake has been. So if you avoid an obstacle with a tip the rest will follow.
The middle method is teach and repeat. So you teach it manually and it will repeat that manoeuvre.
The third way is completely script driven. So you write a script in your virtual environment upload it into the snake arm program and it can move based on that.
Which way would you say is the best?
Certainly for the military it is definitely manual; as every environment is different. There is no way you could script for all eventualities.
Like the design for controlling UAV’s you use a Games controller to work the arm, why is this?
We use an Xbox controller if I am allowed to talk about brands! The reason is they cost £20 from Argos! If we were to develop our own controller it would cost us tens of thousands of pounds for something Microsoft have already done for us, they have done the ergonomics they’ve stress tested these things. Gamers throw these things around their rooms when they get frustrated! So they are very good pieces of kit and they work.
For more information please check their website out.