BraveheartA UK firm has developed a robot that will take on dangerous operations. Alex ayhew-Smith reports
A new robot could soon be taking on the chore of inspecting some of the most hazardous areas in industry and shipping. This James Bond of the robot world is being developed by a partnership of a number of south of England organisations and goes on display for the first time at the Embedded Systems Show in London.
The fearless robot, called Robug IV, has been in development since January 1998, with Portech, a Portsmouth-based company, responsible for building the robot and, later, marketing and selling systems based on the technology. Portech says the system could be used in the nuclear industry, by construction contractors or ship operators, above and below the water.
Partners in the project include the Parallel Applications Centre (PAC), based in Southampton, which designed the robot’s control software infrastructure. The mobile robotics laboratory at the University of Portsmouth – which has worked with Portech on previous projects – supplied the advanced control algorithms used in the control system by PAC.  
  Robotic spiderman… The Robug IV project was supported by the European Commission’s high-performance computing and networking (HPCN) technology transfer nodes network. The network supports small and medium enterprises and works in partnership with industry to provide, computer-based solutions to business problems. Escalate in the UK is part of the HPCN network and is managed by the Parallel Applications Centre. The Robug project was designed to demonstrate the use of distributed control for robotics.
“We don’t work solely in the area of embedded control systems, although this has been one of the common threads throughout the eight years PAC has been in existence,” says Rob McKendrick, manager at PAC. He describes PAC as a systems engineering and consultancy business dedicated to the innovative application of information technology. “PAC provides a range of services aimed at adding value to our clients’ businesses through innovative solutions and innovative IT-enabled business opportunities. We work with our clients in a spirit of partnership aimed at ensuring an effective transfer of knowledge,” he says.
“PAC’s main contribution was in helping the software designers develop software that was truly distributed, for example the software to control the robot’s knee can execute on processors other than the one controlling the knee joint. PAC also developed the CAN communication library used by the software developers. This allows them to think about control algorithms whilst we take care of the communications,” he says. The hardware aspects of Robug’s control system were developed by Portech.
The eight legged robot has pneumatically powered aluminium alloy legs with vacuum gripper feet to hold on to rough or vertical surfaces. But the main feature of the robot is the embedded control system at each of its 32 joints – four joints per leg, on eight legs. Each joint has its own microprocessor, linked together with a high performance computer network, relaying data between the processors.
The robot works with a PC sending messages to the robot about where it wants it to move, and the control system decides where each leg should be, from that where each joint should be, and from that where each actuator should be, explains McKendrick. “This is built in a distributed way, so that the controls for each joint get information from the CAN-bus and then control the actuators from there.”
The robot’s microcontrollers are housed on a board designed by Portech. “This could be reused for other applications,” says McKendrick. “The interface board is pretty specific to this application (control of pneumatics) but is easily separated from the control board.” Portech owns the board design and PAC wrote the communications software.
When asked about what the embedded system allows the robot to do, McKendrick says it is an open question still. However, PAC says the use of parallel computers for embedded systems has a number of benefits over traditional architectures, including: the ability to scale performance to suit changes in requirements during design; fault tolerance due to a lack of dependency on one central processor; the ability to partition and allocate functionality in the best way with computing being localised near the components being controlled.
The modular design of the embedded control system also means reduced manufacturing costs, according to PAC. In particular the use of off-the-shelf hardware will save money spent on manufacturing. PAC used Infineon Technologies’ C167 processors at each of Robug IV’s joints. Normally, for each new application, a specialist robot has to be built with new control hardware and software. This leads to a very costly robot with long delivery times.
Portech’s plan is to widen the possible applications for its robots and reduce their development and purchase costs. The result, according to Portech, is a robot that can be built quickly from existing designs and which includes sophisticated, flexible control systems to allow simple programming of complex functions by the users rather than developers: an off-the-shelf robot.
Although Robug is a test platform that demonstrates the distributed control systems’ use, Portech will build real robots to suit specific tasks, and are able to do this now using the ideas, techniques, and intellectual property in Robug.
After the project is complete, Robug can be used in other demonstration and research areas, says McKendrick.
The robot will be tried out at a test rig later this month, and Robug’s future lies in the various spin offs that can be made from the robot’s systems, designed to suit particular environments, according to McKendrick.
Such robots are available now, with the capability to take on dangerous operations.

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