Welcome to the year 2016, where robots are giving dogs and diamonds a run for their money as humanity’s best friend! Robots are used in a diversity of industries and for countless uses, some of which are explored in our university's Mechatronics and Robotic Systems Laboratory, or the MARS Lab for short.
Dr. Scott Nokleby founded the MARS Lab in 2005. Since then, it has seen a wide variety of projects from undergraduate, master's, and PhD students.
The MARS lab consists of two separate rooms, one in UA and the other in the Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) building, and many of the projects involve autonomous robots.
So what exactly does it mean for a robot to be autonomous? It means that a robot can complete any given task with one simple command by itself, rather than having to be manually controlled by a person during the entire process.
It also means that the robot can collect information about its environment and avoid putting itself in danger. Not only are the robots here smart, but they are mechanically designed to endure tasks that would be too dangerous for humans.
Jordan Gilbert, a master's student, gave a tour of the lab and explained some of the projects him and others in the lab have been working on. Much of the work done in the lab is in conjunction with Ontario Power Generation and Cameco, making the application of radiation science a big part of several projects. One of these projects is the OmniMaxbot, shown above.
The dangers of transporting radioactive waste is one challenge the MARS lab is working to address through the development of their OmniMaxbot, which autonomously picks up and transports hazardous waste to different spots. What makes it different than a regular forklift? It can easily move in any direction (forward, backwards, left and right) and can rotate, making it able to avoid any obstacle as it navigates its path!
The OmniMaxbot can identify where containers of hazardous wastes are using scanners to detect a visual code on the container. This is how it finds out what objects to pick up and carry. It also makes use of lasers to survey the room so that it can avoid running into obstacles or a wall. Check it out in action here:
What happens when you try to take the same omnidirectional ease of motion from the OmniMaxbot, and take it to the skies? You get the Omnidirectional Quadcopter, also known as the Omnicopter, another great project from the MARS lab.
The Omnicopter is a variation of a quadcopter, a type of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The Omnicopter has four main propellers, or rotors, to keep it in the air, with smaller propellers near the central body of the Omnicopter. The smaller propellers help this quadcopter to easily move in any direction in the air. This helps the Omnicopter complete tasks in much less time, as it won’t have the delay of having only four propellers to move it, tilt, and rotate it! Check out how fast it changes directions here:
Many UAV enthusiasts enjoy recreational activities like quadcopter racing, but there are numerous applications for UAV’s. UAV’s often are used to complete tasks too dangerous for human use, or to get jobs finished more quickly and effectively. These jobs could include aerial photography, weather and land surveying, and search and rescue missions.
There is another quadcopter being developed in the MARS Lab, knows as the Aerial Manipulator System (AMS). Its main use is helping with construction and maintenance of tall structures, such as high-voltage transmission lines, using a robotic arm attached to it. Not only does it have to be able to fly, but to also pick up and move around objects while in the air. Check out it's preliminary testing here:
To help with testing of UAV’s in the MARS Lab, a testing area is used to monitor movement. If you look closely at the picture of the quadcopter, you can see a few small white balls on its central body.
These help the cameras in the testing area to find out where the quadcopter is in the room, as well as its orientation (if it’s tilting, which way it’s facing, etc.).
Some robots, however, get more of a taste of the outdoors! Sometimes the usual gaggle of geese would make way for the Autonomous Amphibious Robot (AAR), to the advantage of many geese-phobic students.
The Autonomous Amphibious Robot is a robot that brings more than one function to the table, as it can travel over hilly land terrains and through the water. Watch it in action going over several ramps at once, and swim during water testing:
Above, I mentioned that the MARS Lab has strong partnerships with Ontario Power Generation and Cameco, so there are several other projects besides OmniMaxbot that are developed for use in the nuclear industry.
As explained in my Radiation Protection Blog, our university does a lot of work in training students to properly measure and analyze radiation in an environment.
To take this further, the RadBot works to reduce the exposure to radiation that people must face by detecting and measuring the radiation itself. It works by surveying a room to find out where and how strong the radiation in the room is, rather than having humans go in to do the task.
A laser is used to pinpoint boundaries of the room and to give a better idea of where the radiation is coming from. Next steps will be getting RadBot to work outside in the field!
Several students have also been working on a Next Generation CANDU (Canadian Deuterium Uranium reactor, the type of nuclear reactor Canada is famous for) Inspection System for Ontario Power Generation. An inspection system would ensure that there would be no scratches or other flaws, which could threaten the integrity of the pressure tube.
Currently, to inspect a nuclear fuel channel, the inspection system would only be able to inspect one at a time. The new inspection system that students in the MARS lab are working on would work autonomously and allow for more than one fuel channel to be inspected at the same time. This is a particularly complicated project, as a Robotic Crawler Design and Stereovision Flaw Replication are both large components of the project, as well as a Monte Carlo N-Particle (MCNP) code, which is used to estimate the lifetime of the new inspection system.
This last robot is one of the most memorable robots from the MARS lab, due to its name. This is Husky!
Husky is a Uranium Mine Inspector that uses a probe to find out how much radiation is coming from the walls of the mine and to ensure that workers in the mines are working in safe conditions. Similar to the Autonomous Amphibious Robot, it is expected to be able to handle rough terrain and be autonomous.
Radiation detection isn’t Husky’s only purpose, as it would further protect workers through spraying Shotcrete, a spray-on concrete, to prevent rocks from falling inside the mine. As well, it ensures that too much radiation doesn't seep out of the mine walls.
To find out how much radiation is coming out from beneath the shotcrete, you’d normally need to drill into a small area in the layer of shotcrete.
Husky’s probe would help get a level of radiation without the need to do any drilling. Instead of just focusing on the radiation from a small, focused area, the idea is for Husky to be able to be able to collect information on radiation from the entire layer, and to give a map of where the levels of radiation are highest.
From protecting workers from radiation to trekking through treacherous conditions on our behalf, it’s amazing how our autonomous robots are helping humanity in so many ways.
Not in university yet and want to get some experience with robotics at our university? Each fall there’s the Robotics Competition where hundreds of students compete to design the best robot, as well as the FIRST Robotics Competition here in March!