We often write about four-legged robots. We inform you what new features and capabilities they have received and how close to their real prototypes. But one question always remained unsolved until the end of: exactly, why all these machines? In addition to the potential of connecting these robots to the analysis of blockages as a result of various emergencies and disasters, as well as military use, how and where else can such four-legged machines be used? Boston Dynamics recently revealed how one of her robots SpotMini conducts inspection on the construction site. But this is not exactly a situation that can demonstrate the superiority of the machine over man.
In September of this year, the company ANYbotics brought one of its four-legged robots ANYmal on a very remote offshore marine power plant in the North sea. Work here is pretty boring. The main functions are performed by automation. But on the platform must always be 1-2 people for regular health checks of all systems and monitoring of the various detectors and sensors. As you know, not many people agree to such a position.
“The most important aspect for any power supply company is the safe and continuous operation of all systems, especially when it comes to the production of energy in coastal power plants. Autonomous robots can offer the proper level of support when performing regular and necessary inspections of equipment and the rest of the infrastructure at such enterprises. As part of the world’s first pilot project, the operator of the power transmission system TenneT decided to test on one of the world’s largest Converter sites located in the North sea, the four-legged robot animal”.
After reviewing the video below, you will immediately understand why such four-legged robots like ANYmal are almost ideal for performing such tasks. The car has to move across a smooth surface, occasionally lifting up and down the stairs and squeezing through narrow places. Unlike two-legged humanoid robots, which even when performing such simple tasks could be difficult, the design of four-legged robots allows them to cope without much effort. Of course, it would be possible to use in this case, and robots on the track, but it would be less effective: where the tracked car would have to go around obstacles, four-legged robot can simply cross them.
Despite the fact that the speed and efficiency of ANYmal is at the proper level to perform such tasks, even such machines have their drawbacks. On the same demo video you can note some of them. For example, in some cases, a cruel joke is played by the short paws of an iron four – legged friend-this makes it difficult for him to review for monitoring high-mounted sensors with cameras located on his body. In addition, the machine is not able to open the doors of electric panels, so the station staff must leave these objects open. But these are all little things that can be easily solved by making the environment in which the machine will run more friendly to it.
A more obvious drawback of the same ANYmal is different. Although the machine can easily cope with the daily, monotonous monitoring and even be able to inform you in a timely manner, if something goes wrong, it is not able to independently repair the failed equipment. That is, even with the use of such robots in enterprises will always need people to perform more complex technical tasks. The robot is not able to replace a person, but is able to facilitate his boring, daily, monotonous work.
For comments on the draft Animal and its testing on offshore platform journalists scientific publications IEEE Spectrum turned to Peter Fankhauser, co-founder and commercial Director of the company ANYbotics behind this car.
What special features should Animal have to work in such an environment?
“Using a mobile robot in real industrial conditions requires solving a number of complex problems. The most important aspect is the presence of the latter full autonomy and universal mobility, allowing to work in large, complex environments using a variety of control and testing equipment. In General, the design of the robot ANYmal is well adapted to work in conditions and environments created for humans. In other words, it can easily move on all surfaces, use stairs and move through narrow spaces. Computer vision, as well as LiDAR sensors allow ANYmal to navigate in space and make a plan for safe passage through the obstacles encountered on its way. Among the control and testing equipment, the machine uses a conventional optical camera with the possibility of magnification, a thermal camera, as well as microphones. All this allows us to collect detailed information for further analysis by the machine operator.”
Were there any difficulties in deploying Animal on the platform?
“”With the support of the Ttnet operator (the platform owner), we were able to prepare well for the Animal deployment and make sure that there are no surprises waiting for us. We studied in detail the schedule of tasks with which the robot had to work, as well as conducted simulations with virtual plans of the platform. Increasingly, our efforts were focused to meet high safety standards to operate in the remote marine power plant. This included a week of safety training; training evacuation using a helicopter, analysis of rescue scenarios from the water surface, as well as equipping our field team with all necessary protective equipment. And, of course, we made sure that we took with us all the necessary spare parts for the machine, which may be needed in case of unforeseen breakdowns. After all, we were about 100 kilometers away from the nearest spare parts store.”
To what extent, if you look realistically, ANYmal will be able to replace a person?
“We are still far from being able to simulate the human ability to adequately analyze the problem and use various objects and tools to solve it. Therefore, instead of the goal of creating a replacement for real workers, we are moving towards creating an automated help tool. Thanks to such mechanisms, it will be possible to increase the level of safety and efficiency in enterprises.”
When will ANYmal be ready for permanent battery life? What are you doing to achieve this goal?
“We are increasing the complexity and duration of tasks for each project. The next steps in development include the ability to monitor at long distances, as well as testing charging stations for such robots. A fully finished commercial product will be presented in the near future.”
In solving any other problems and in what areas, in your opinion, will be used Autonomous robots like Animal?
“At the moment we are working on several projects in the energy and manufacturing industry, as well as construction, agriculture and other more specialized and common projects. In all these areas, mobile robots can provide significant assistance and support. Working with Animal, we realized that people can have their own ideas of using similar machines, which we did not even know, developing them. In the future, the range of commercial opportunities will grow along with the capabilities of the robots themselves.”