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Robots to help humans on land, air and sea

An aerial robot designed by the ARCAS project. Image courtesy of the ARCAS project
An aerial robot designed by the ARCAS project. Image courtesy of the ARCAS project

Research in robotics could lead to machines that can navigate the sea like fish and check out large remote structures from the air. 

Robotics research across Europe is making huge leaps forward, demonstrating how the technology can protect humans in harsh conditions, make industry more efficient and help safeguard the environment.

EU-funded projects are at the forefront of robotics research – and the results should have a big impact on how everyone from oil and gas companies to satellite operators, conservation organisations and search and rescue teams operate in future.

The EU-funded FILOSE project is creating an underwater robot that mimics the behaviour of fish and their interaction with their environment to increase efficiency and autonomy.

Professor Maarja Kruusmaa of the Tallinn University of Technology, in Estonia, said the project could lead to radically different underwater robots. At the moment, they generally use propellers, making them less efficient than fish. ‘Nature is a huge, freely available patent database but it hasn’t yet developed any creature that uses a propeller,’ she said.

Robots navigate unknown undersea terrain by sonar. For Kruusmaa’s team, the hunt is on to develop a robot that functions like a fish and can operate alone for longer periods of time than is currently the case through efficient energy consumption.

Professor Maarja Kruusmaa of the FILOSE project inspects an underwater robot that functions like a fish. © Jelena PljonkinaProfessor Maarja Kruusmaa of the FILOSE project inspects an underwater robot that functions like a fish. © Jelena Pljonkina

The project was born from the observation that fish swim by making use of the flow of the water to propel them. To do this, they have to identify the vortices in the flow and for that they use a sophisticated sensing organ called a ‘lateral line’ that provides the fish with huge amounts of information about the ‘flowscape’ around it.

‘All 30 000 species of fish have this organ – but no underwater vehicle has a flow sensor. When we swim in water we just think “it’s cold, it’s warm, it’s wet”,’ Kruusmaa said. ‘For a fish, it’s like swimming in information, or listening to the radio.’

The project could lead to the development of more efficient underwater vehicles that could be used for environmental, search and rescue or oil and gas applications. In the meantime, a spin-off project could give something back to the fish. The information on how fish perceive the ‘flowscape’ is being used to help design better ‘fish passes’, which are special routes created to enable migrating fish to get back to their spawning grounds where otherwise a hydropower dam would have blocked them off.

Aerial robot inspectors

Meanwhile, the AIRobots project, completed earlier this year and backed by the European Union, aimed to develop small inspection robots that could fly autonomously to carry out checks on big structures like dams and bridges – where erecting scaffolding and sending humans for the same task can be dangerous, time-consuming and expensive – gathering information through contact and ultrasonic sensors. 

Project Coordinator Professor Lorenzo Marconi of the University of Bologna, Italy, said the big challenge was designing a robot that could be controlled by a human operator as opposed to a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilot.

‘The control system had to have an easy interface so anyone could operate the vehicle,’ said Marconi. In the end, the project came up with a system similar to a console for a video game, where the operator remotely guides the robot’s movements via a joystick.

‘Nature is a huge, freely available patent database but it hasn't yet developed any creature that uses a propeller.’

Professor Maarja Kruusmaa, Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia

The ARCAS project aims to use aerial robots not only to gather information from the environment, but also to interact physically with it, in particular by assembling equipment and structures, using cooperating robots carrying manipulators with multiple joints.

The project’s general manager Professor Anibal Ollero of the University of Seville, Spain, believes the technology being explored could be useful in industry – repairing hard-to-access industrial complexes such as dams or reactors – as well as in space. ‘It’s exciting to consider that the project is being validated in realistic scenarios,’ he said. The aerial robots are being developed to be able to assemble distant structures without the need for a human presence.

The aerial robot can transport and assemble on-site a ground robot to operate in an otherwise inaccessible environment and ARCAS is also developing free-flying robotic functionalities for satellite maintenance.

‘The project is going well and in the first validation experiments we obtained better results than could be expected for the first 17 months of the project,’ said Professor Ollero.

Robots in industry

At the University of Nottingham, UK, the MiRoR project aims to develop a miniature robot that can be used to repair large and complex installations, such as aero-engines, power plants and offshore oil platforms, in situ.

The project is developing systems that will allow the miniature robot to ‘walk’ and ‘snake’ its way into tight spots as well as an intelligent controller that will allow it to navigate to where it needs to be, decide itself on how to access the working area and learn from its experience.

Professor Dragos Axinte of the University of Nottingham said: ‘Initial prototypes of both the snake arm and walking free-leg hexapod (six-legged robot) have been tested and now the system demonstrators are developed. We hope to come soon to the academic and research communities with the practical results of MiRoR.’

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