Field and service robotics
Research in this field was started in the middle of the 80s and it is today the most rapidly growing research activity in the laboratory. More specifically, the research has concerned problems encountered when designing or applying mobile robots or robotic machines in outdoor or other poorly structured environments, such as work sites in forestry, mining or construction, and in some specific environments like critical process plants or in space. The laboratory has been successful in several internationally well known projects in the field. In the following the main milestones in the past and the current activities are surveyed and links to further information are given.
The first results of the development of the walking machine called MECANT were published in 1992. Since then MECANT has drawn a lot of international interest and was considered to be one of the most advanced mechatronic machine of its kind in the world at the time. This machine is now "retired" and a next generation machine, called WorkPartner, replacing it is under design.
Another important project in the past was the Esprit II Panorama project Advanced perception and navigation system for Autonomous Applications completed in 1993. In this project a generic perception and navigation system for autonomous mobile robots moving in unstructured outdoor type of environments was developed as an extensive European co-operative work. The laboratory participated in this project as an active partner. As concrete results today the laboratory has extensive knowledge on perception and navigation technology and an advanced test vehicle ARSKA. It has been further developed and is used as test bed when studying navigation and perception systems, teleoperation and machine motion control methods of autonomous mobile vehicles.
Recent research in the field of mobile robots has also produced a new innovative rolling ball robot. It is a ball shaped mobile robot which can move on the ground by using inside driving mechanism and on-board micro-controller based control system. It has many interesting features and challenges in motion control, environment perception and navigation problems. Applications are being sought for in the field of service robotics, in space exploration or in amusement industry.
The rolling ball robot is also used in the IECAT project (Innovative Educational Concepts for Autonomous and Teleoperated Systems). It is a tele-education project, where six universities in the United States and Europe co-operate to set up a virtual international laboratory for control experiments related to aerospace and robotics.
The most recent research on mobility of robots concerns roboticed rowing boats. The research interest is to develop a smart rowing robot which can imitate human rowing with equally low power consumption (a human rower uses mechanical power of only 100-150 W when rowing briskly).
The research in mobile multi-robot societies was started in 1992. Since then it has turned out to be a very attractive new research field with rapidly growing international interest. The idea is simply taken from Nature. A robot society is a colony of members or "agents", usually small and simple, which can execute tasks together in a co-operative way (imitating e.g. the way how social insects work). Several small-sized test robots have been built in the laboratory. The first one was HUTMAN, a minirobot used for studying a "model society".
The next step was a small underwater robot called SUBMAR which is a prototype mobile sensor/actuator unit used for inspection of the inside spaces in liquid process plants or other similar environments like communal water and wastewater systems or natural environment. Multiple SUBMARs can form a multi-robot system called "bacterial robot society". The three year research project ended at the end of 1996. An industrial product development phase was started in cooperation with a new company founded for this purpose. First applications are most probably in food industry or environmental processes (clean and waste water systems). The research is currently continuing by studying possibilities to add sensors and actuators and diminish the size of the robots by using micro-mechanical components.
In 1994 the laboratory joined FFUSION program which is the Finnish association in the European fusion research activity. The area where work has been done since then is the remote inspection and handling technology for the ITER reactor (International Termonucleic Experimental Reactor). ITER is a very challenging international mega-project which provides several possibilities of applying the research results obtained in the laboratory. At the moment the laboratory participates in the development of the in-vessel area inspection system (the area confining the plasma). This system, originally designed in JET (Joint European Torus in Oxford), is a large scale rotating endoscopic device IVVS (In Vessel Viewing System) with special optics and mechanical design. The laboratory’s part of the project (other partners are VTT and IVO-company) is to design and develop the control and imaging system for the device. What makes the work challenging is the extreme conditions inside the ITER-reactor; a device like IVVS has never been constructed this far.
In a recently started BriteEuram Graft-project SHICO (Integrated Shipcontrol System for Small Tonnage and Fast Shuttle Ships) the laboratory is coordinating the research work in consortium which develops a lasar (laser radar) based collision avoidance and navigation system for fast small scaled ships commuting in European coastal or in-land waters.
In another recently started BriteEuram project ROTIS (Remote Operated Tankers Inspection System) the laboratory participates to design and manufacture the prototype of a small scaled ROV which is used for inspecting oil tankers’ ballast tanks while loaded with water.