The mobile maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) prototype

Maintenance robot to assist field engineers

Researchers have unveiled a robot prototype that could help engineers repair equipment in the field.

Using a combination of augmented reality and robotics, the system brings critical information and remote expertise directly to field engineers.

The mobile maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) prototype is designed to help manufacturers and companies supplying and maintaining high-value machinery in sectors such as aerospace, oil & gas and shipping.

It will help field engineers accurately locate equipment, provide them with critical information and receive real-time visual support from supervising experts based remotely.

The project is the result of a collaboration between IBM, the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Boeing.

Currently MRO tasks typically involve an engineer visiting a site, finding the right machine, and making sure they have an appropriate task sheet.

If they run into difficulty, they might call for help from a remote supervisor or product expert.

The new system allows a supervisor to monitor an engineer’s progress towards the maintenance site, using GPS.

Once on site, an engineer can use a smartphone and QR codes to locate and identify an asset and receive maintenance instructions.

The smartphone uses augmented reality technology to overlay points of interest over a plan of the site, which can include the location of other engineers, first aid stations and health and safety apparatus.

If assistance is needed, a remote expert is able to view the on-site engineer’s workspace and support them with real-time video and audio links using a camera and a small projector mounted at the end of a remotely controlled robotic arm.

The expert, from his management console, is also able to project a pointer and valuable information such as free-hand sketches, assembly instructions and CAD images directly onto the workspace or a nearby wall.

Richard Lanyon-Hogg, IBM technical director for the industrial sector, said: “The MRO prototype brings together two innovative IBM technologies, developed in our European research labs in Hursley and Haifa, into a single solution for our clients.

“It offers manufacturers the opportunity to lower their costs, provide just-in-time knowledge transfer and reduce the personal risk to engineers working in difficult environments.”

Studies have shown that remote support is much more efficient if on-site and remote engineers can share a visual representation of the site workspace and the on-site engineer’s actions.

To date this has been accomplished, and only in part, by on-site engineers using hand-held cameras, mounted head-gear or specialist glasses.

The new system provides the supervisor with complete visual independence and a more stable video image.

On-site engineers are able to work with greater freedom or, in the case of those with specialist glasses, freed from the tiring need to re-focus their eyes.

AMRC researchers are continuing to work with industrial partners to develop the system for real industrial applications.

Dr Rab Scott, head of virtual reality at the AMRC, said: “IBM’s MRO prototype is an exciting addition to the innovative toolset used by the AMRC’s researchers and engineers.

“We hope to demonstrate its usefulness and versatility in a number of situations within the manufacturing arena.”

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