UK team to develop autonomous inspection robots

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Intelligent, semi-autonomous tele-operated robots that can squeeze into difficult or hazardous spaces to carry out maintenance and inspection work are being developed by a UK consortium.

The Shadow Robot Company is leading an Innovate UK-funded project to develop a demonstrator of a semi-autonomous teleoperation (SAT) system designed to be simpler to use and more intelligent than existing devices, according to the company’s managing director Rich Walker.

“The way teleoperation systems have historically worked has been quite limited, they’ve been very mechanical, very direct-drive,” he said.

The 13-month project, which also involves OC Robotics, Cambrian Intelligence and UCL, will use Shadow Robot Company’s Dexterous Hand – a robotic device with the same capabilities as a human hand – on the end of OC’s snake-arm robot.

Cambrian Intelligence will create an augmented reality (AR) user interface, while UCL researchers will install a vision system.

“There is a lot of intelligence that can be brought to bear on SAT systems from modern robotics technology, including vision systems, mapping, grasp generation, grasp control, and these are not being used at present,” said Walker.

By combining an AR interface with a robot hand and snake arm, the consortium hope the system will make remote inspection, maintenance and assembly work simpler and more cost effective.

“When a large plane is assembled, for example, there are various ports throughout the wing, where you stick your hand in to fasten a nut inside,” said Walker. “If you could use a snake arm with a (robotic) hand at the end of it, those ports could be placed a lot further apart, which would improve structural integrity and decrease the number of ports, thereby reducing weight,” he said.

The company is talking to firms who carry out remote inspection and maintenance tasks, to better understand their needs, he said.