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Odense Robotics cluster: inside Denmark’s robot nursery

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‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is certainly true of a robotics start-up hub in Denmark, which is turning some imaginative concepts into commercial products.

The city of Odense in Denmark has set out to make itself a centre for the development and commercialisation of robotics technology. It has created the Odense Robotics cluster in which, at the latest count, 129 companies plus suppliers and research facilities interact with each other to reinforce their capabilities. One high-profile operation in the mix, for instance, is leading-edge ‘cobot’ supplier Universal Robots. 

A major component is the Odense Robotics StartUp Hub, an initiative housed in the city’s Danish Technological Institute in which start-up companies deemed to show significant growth potential are given both technical and business development support to turn their ideas into commercially viable operations. Since it began in 2015, 15 companies have entered the hub, generally spending around 12 months there.

Interestingly, the Hub does not confine itself to traditional factory-based robotics applications but instead takes a much broader view of the term to encompass technologies that range from marine engineering to satellite communications.

One current member of the Hub, for instance, is Fishi Robotics, which entered the initiative in December 2018 just three months after it was founded by Australian CEO Carl Chatfield. He says that the company aims to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle that can be used to carry out inspections of submerged structures such as ship hulls and harbour walls.

Crucially, Chatfield explains, the intended device will make use of straight­forward and inexpensive technology – “video cameras only a bit fancier than what you would get on your phone” – to enable it both to position and guide itself and to record the necessary information. “They allow it to navigate and keep a constant distance as it moves back and forth in a precise scan pattern,” he confirms. In contrast the only existing rival system he is aware of uses much more expensive sonar and laser-based techniques.

Nevertheless a fully autonomous capability is yet to be achieved. Instead, says Chatfield, the device has so far attained a semi-autonomous capability in which it retains a wired connection to an above-surface monitoring station but can perform pre-programmed inspection routines that do not require continuous human control. In its first trial inspection of a 20x3m section of an underwater ship hull last year, it kept a distance of 50cm from the hull surface as it traversed each longitudinal section before dropping down 30cm to complete the return journey.

The control software for the device has been developed by a technical specialist hired from the Roborace series for autonomous electric cars. Chatfield explains that the “unique and fundamental” challenges posed by the development of the device mean that the technical issues involved have had to be solved within the company. The main benefit membership of the Hub has conferred is business credibility when facing potential investors.

Ultimately, says Chatfield, the goal is for the robot to be able “comprehensively to scan the submerged hull of a 200-metre-long ship in just eight hours”. The resulting image data will initially be stored on-board for later upload to an above-surface computer, where it will be subjected to an automated analysis routine to identify damaged areas.

“We would like to make it economically viable to inspect a ship hull once a month. Today that is normally only achievable through drydocking once every five years,” he states. “We will certainly be looking to scan complete structures including ships by the end of 2020.”

Meanwhile Happtec, which entered the Hub in August 2018, is not developing a robot at all but a means of enabling all forms of automation equipment to be integrated easily and quickly. “Our vision is to make robotic and automation technology available to everyone in a production environment,” confirms CTO and founder Andreas Lyder.

‘Our vision is to make robotic and automation technology available to everyone in a production environment.’

Andreas Lyder, Happtec

Creating shop floor networks involving various types of equipment from different suppliers still usually necessitates specialist systems integration expertise, Lyder explains, even though programming individual items of equipment to carry out specific tasks is now much simpler than previously. Happtec wants to bring to the industrial realm a universal ‘plug-in’ networking capability similar to that already available in the world of consumer electronics – Lyder makes the analogy with wireless loudspeakers that automatically integrate themselves with existing counterparts when they are switched on, to create room-by-room sound systems. “We want to create a generic integration capability that can be applied to any piece of hardware,” he confirms.

The company is working to develop its own ‘controller’, which it calls the Happtec Smart Gateway. This will, Lyder says, be a hardware unit with appropriate software that will plug into a piece of production equipment through any standard interface and then connect to a network through an Ethernet port on its other face. “Ensuring communication between different items of equipment will just involve plugging in a single Ethernet cable, so long as both are on same network and are fitted with the controller,” he states. “No set-up will be necessary – a capability we believe will be unique.” Benefits should include both flexibility of initial use and ease of subsequent re-use of equipment.

Moreover, the system is now set for practical testing. Though details are still confidential Lyder reveals that Happtec has made an agreement with a manufacturing company in Denmark to fit a prototype controller to a piece of shopfloor equipment that will enable it to roll-in a robot for a machine tending application to supplement a human operator as required.

One company that has now graduated from the Hub is QuadSAT, which was founded in March 2017 and spent 12 months in the initiative. CEO Joakim Espeland explains that the company is applying drone technology to support the development of satellite communications systems. The Hub, he notes, regards drones as “flying robots”.

Specifically, Espeland continues, the company has developed a drone payload package combining both hardware and software that enables a drone to simulate the appearance to ground-based communications equipment of an actual satellite in Earth orbit. The consequence, he says, is a highly flexible means of testing key performance parameters of ground-based equipment such as its energy radiation in conditions that replicate real operating conditions – for instance, equipment meant for maritime use could be tested on a ship with the drone flying above it.

He adds that the company does not make its own drones but has machines built to its specification that satisfy its requirements for flight duration – “about 20 minutes with a heavy payload” – and extreme positional accuracy.

Espeland says there were two particular benefits from participation in the Hub. The first was the way it facilitated support in software development that helped create an initial prototype system in just a couple of weeks. The second was how it provided QuadSAT with “insight into what they would need for continuing product development.”

Since it left the Hub the company, which remains based in Odense, has grown to employ 13 people and is now expanding outside of Denmark with the employment of a researcher at the Satellite Applications Catapult at Harwell in the UK. For the moment, Espeland is confident that QuadSAT is “the only company in the satellite industry using drones in this way.” Once the technology is fully mature he envisages it being used not just for testing but also for approvals procedures by relevant authorising bodies. Indeed late last year the company announced it would be collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) towards those objectives.

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