Robots Automate Disassembly of Chemical Weapons
Disarming and disassembling the rockets is not easy, and the task is made even more difficult because of the rocket’s design. The rocket propellant cannot be removed from the warhead without cutting open the rocket, and the propellant itself presents a hazard, because it becomes unstable as it ages. Another danger is leakage of the toxic nerve agents. As sarin decomposes, it forms acids that can corrode the aluminum casing inside the rocket.
Both Ankrom and Staggs have seen first-hand how advancements in chemical weapons destruction now require fewer and fewer people. Ankrom started working with chemical agents in the mid-1980s, recalling how his first project, which focused on a hallucinogenic, was entirely manual and required 15 people. Even as recently as 2014, workers at the Blue Grass depot had to manually separate the warheads from the rocket motors and then separate the fuses from the warheads to support testing at the Anniston Static Detonation Chamber disposal plant, adds Staggs, who has worked with chemical weapons since 1978. “Adding the automation with robots has assisted us with reducing people interaction with these aging chemical weapons,” Staggs says. But the Blue Grass depot’s original disposal system plans, even with its robots, presented problems when workers discovered leaking rockets.
The agency reached out to CRG Automation, an engineering firm best known for building packaging lines for the likes of Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Kraft. CRG Automation has been designing and building packaging and processing equipment for the food, beverage and consumer products industries for more than 20 years. CRG Automation developed an alternative method by holding the assembly fixed and making the cut with the rocket in a vertical orientation, ensuring that any leaking chemical agent would simply gather in the bottom of a containment device. Cutting the rockets in an upright orientation also meant that the operation could be done more precisely. The cut can be located with an accuracy of 0.001 inch, Ankrom says. Six-axis robots are used to load and unload the cutting machines.