Oxford tech team design autonomous robot to work in hazardous environments


Oxford tech team design autonomous robot to work in hazardous environments
The Oxford tech team design autonomous robot to work in hazardous environments,removing the need for people to work in dangerous environments. Image shows Spot, the autonomous robot, walking through Oxford city centre.

A team of eight from the Oxford tech company, Createc, and the Oxford Robotic Institute have created an autonomous robot for hazardous environments that removes the need for people to work in dangerous environments, such as nuclear disaster zones.

Based in the Oxford Centre for Innovation, Createc has been developing smart radiation detection and 3D gamma radiation mapping technology over the last few years. Their ‘N-Visage®’ sensor has been deployed worldwide, including at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) has developed a state-of-the art autonomous navigation system called ‘VILENS’ or Visual Inertial Legged Navigation System. The system allows robots to navigate hazardous sites and collate data remotely.

Combined for the first time, the N-Visage®-VILENS system can be installed on all types of robots to solve dangerous workplace challenges. And because it processes the data in real-time, it can analyse the situation better than humans.

The advantage of the combined system is that it can be attached to any robot suitable for the particular site under exploration – from a four-wheel-drive to a legged robot. This avoids the need for a dedicated robotics development project for each new situation, saving time and cost.

This capability will be invaluable, both in decommissioning nuclear sites, where better data leads to cheaper, quicker projects and in accident response, where rapidly gathering good information is crucial to effective accident management.

Spot, the autonomous robot, walking through Oxford city centre.

Createc’s radiation sensor N-Visage® acts as an on-site “radiation expert” by creating a real-time 3D activity map with uncertainty estimates so that dangerous substances or situations can be easily assessed. For instance, the sensor can classify the type of nuclear waste on a particular site so that a decision can be made about disposal.

Also, ORI’s autonomous exploration software adds the capability to any robot using the Robot Operating System (ROS). The combined system can be fitted and set to work in a matter of hours.

Matt Mellor, Chief Executive of Createc, said: “The purpose of our smart radiation sensor is that it embodies not only the ability to measure radiation at a known location, but also to automatically interpret that data in the light of a survey objective to demonstrate a proposed next action for the robot to implement.”

“Our aim is to develop a smart sensor that not only has the ability to sense radiation, but also comprises all of the physics knowledge, algorithms and computing power to understand the meaning of the data and advise other system components on how to react to the data.

“Createc and ORI’s technology will satisfy an emerging need for a robotics module which enables companies to rapidly develop and field robotics systems based on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, confident in their ability to operate in a nuclear environment.

“We are widely recognised in the nuclear industry for success in innovation and problem solving. Some of our technologies have been deployed around the world to provide accurate and readily-available radiological information.”

Spot, the autonomous robot, walking through Oxford city centre.

Dr Maurice Fallon, Oxford Robotics Institute, added: “Our VILENS autonomous navigation technology is a world class tool for robotics. Designed by our team, the local mapping system works in 3D and can operate in all kinds of problematic situations, including completely dark conditions.”

Createc has already demonstrated its credibility for developing and implementing N-Visage® – it has been commercially deployed at Sellafield in the UK and extensively at the Fukushima Daiichi site in Japan. They are working on other sensors to enable the robots to operate and problem-solve in other dangerous situations, such as gas leaks.

The VILENS was designed by David Wisth, Marco Camurri and Maurice Fallon at the Oxford Robotics Institute. It is a factor-graph based odometry algorithm that fuses multiple sources of measurement. The Institute is well known for running the UK’s first autonomous vehicle on public roads in 2014.

Started in 2010, Createc is based in the Lake District and the Oxford Centre for Innovation. The Centre is owned by The Oxford Trust – a local charity set up by Oxford’s first entrepreneurs, Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood.

The Trust has been supporting start-ups and spinouts for the last 35 years through its two innovation centres, the Oxford Centre for Innovation in central Oxford and its sister site, the Wood Centre for Innovation in Oxford’s Health and Life Sciences District in Headington.

Createc is a channel partner for Boston Dynamics, enabling distribution of their Spot robot to UK buyers.

The Oxford Robotics Institute (ORI) is an interdisciplinary division within the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford.

Images show Spot, the autonomous robot, walking through Oxford city centre. Credit: Ed Nix

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