A robot tested for its ability to move in extremely difficult terrain at the new RACE facility in Culham

RACE demonstrates robot teamwork and launches extreme environment test bed

Image credit: Tereza Pultarova

Future collaboration between different types of robots in extreme environments has been demonstrated at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s RACE centre in Culham as the centre launched a new test bed for extreme robotics aiming to increase confidence in the technology

The demonstration, a glimpse into future robotic collaboration, took place during the Challenging Environments Expo 16 held at RACE (for Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) on Wednesday 28 September. 

In a set-up simulating a nuclear fusion device, an off-the-shelf robotic arm commonly used by car manufacturers was installed to carry out repairs. The robotic arm, however, is not pre-programmed but controlled via a sensitive haptic device by an operator from a remote control room. The arm, fitted with a sensitive gripper, waits for a replacement tile to be delivered by a robotic car, which has been dropped into the environment by a crane. A drone hovering above the scene is filming the whole action and providing data for an elaborate 3D map. 

“We had various different types of robots controlled using the same communications interface,” explained Rob Skilton, lead technologist at RACE. “We developed some communication software, which allows for systems to be integrated in a really flexible and future-proof way. We can take one of the robots out of the environment and replace it with something completely different and none of the other systems are affected at all.” 

While the software holding the whole system together was quite a challenge to build, the RACE team managed to integrate the four off-the-shelf devices within a couple of days. 

“The big challenge is in bringing lots of different items from different manufacturers, all of which have their own communication interfaces and getting them all to work together,” said Skilton. “Our software sits in the middle and provides a standard communication for all of those things so that they can all talk together and work together seamlessly.” 

The UK Atomic Energy Authority believes that robotics in future will become omnipresent in all sorts of extreme environment applications including nuclear, oil and gas, space and underwater. Such robotic systems will enable operators to increase safety of the plants by removing human workers from the most dangerous situations.

“In future with these sorts of environments in power stations, oil refineries and scientific research facilities you get changing requirements and systems are becoming obsolete so they need to be replaced,” said Skilton. “The difficulty there is that when you replace one, typically other systems are affected. What we are trying here is to prevent that by minimising the impact of changing those subsystems.” 

The RACE facility aims to bring various sectors together that can benefit from robotics research, as they face many common challenges. 

“By collaborating across sectors, you make your money go further and you don’t make as many mistakes,” explained RACE director Rob Buckingham. “If we can start to collaborate, we would move faster and that of course is really good for the UK.“ 

At the Expo RACE unveiled a new facility for testing robots for extreme environments. The facility, a cooperation with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), aims to encourage industries to use robots by setting strict standards for performance. 

“The idea is that you have a test facility where a vendor can bring their robot and see whether it passes a whole range of standard tests – go and look at a target, an item, see how well you can see it. Are you wobbling around and shaking or can you see the picture very clearly? Go and pick up that component and put it here – how fast can you do it? Is it easy for the operator to do that?,” Buckingham explained. 

“If we can actually start to have a set of standardised tests, the customer will start having confidence. If you look, for example, at the oil and gas sector, they are not going to allow a bunch of new kit into an oil refinery if there is even a minimal risk it could set off an explosion, the same applies for the nuclear sector."

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