Industry and academic partnership to create immersive robotic technologies for bomb disposal and nuclear decommissioning

Professor Yvan Petillot from the National Robotarium, based at Heriot-Watt University

Telexistence technologies to remove humans from hazardous environments.

CYBERSELVES, a robotics software company, working with the National Robotarium, based at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, and Resolve Robotics, have been awarded funding to develop telexistence technologies for hazardous environments.

Telexistence and other immersive technologies find ways to physically remove humans from dangerous situations such as nuclear decommissioning and bomb disposal by using a robot as a surrogate self. The technologies allow humans to experience and operate in remote environments via a robot without risk.

While there have been significant advancements in robotics in recent years due to improved sensor technologies and AI, human-machine interface technologies have remained largely unchanged since the 1980s. 

Emergent technologies – such as cloud robotics, VR, AI, and haptics – now allow humans to telepresence remotely into a robot, be immersed in a remote environment or situation and to receive haptic feedback (1) to enhance the level of immersion. 

The project, named ‘TEL-SUBSEA’ will develop underwater solutions for bomb disposal and nuclear decommissioning. The project is one of eleven in an £800,000 programme managed by DASA, run on behalf of the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), and managed by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). 

Designed to help save lives and reduce human exposure to risk, the collaborative team will create a robot-agnostic, low-latency communication system that addresses the current challenge areas of telepresence: haptics, robotics, and telecoms. While immediate work will focus on bomb disposal and nuclear decommissioning, wider potential applications include offshore wind production and space exploration.

Cyberselves, which will lead the project, spun out of Sheffield Robotics, a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, in March 2020 with the vision of bringing unity and simplicity to robotics. The company’s mission is to address the barriers inhibiting the widespread adoption of robots within industrial, commercial and domestic settings. The company has already developed a successful telepresence application, which secured them a place in the semi-finals of the ANA Avatar XPrize.

Commenting on the project,  Nicola Armstrong, Dstl Telexistence Lead, said:  “We are excited to explore the range and potential of the technologies with innovators and stakeholders from across government as well as the defence and security sector, identifying future applications in harsh or hazardous environments.”

Emily Tithecott, DASA Associate Delivery Manager, said: “This competition gives us a real buzz, we are seeing more Government departments teaming together to fund innovations and this ensures many different sectors benefit from the adapted technologies.

“The funded projects will develop ideas in the latest remote operating, including: kinematic mapping, virtual reality, haptics, robotics, and telepresence.”

Cyberselves’ co-founder and CTO, Daniel Camilleri said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for Cyberselves to draw together many exciting new technologies and help realise the true potential of telepresence and robotics for working alongside humans and keeping us safe by helping us to do the jobs that place us at risk. That we can do this with partners that are neighbours here in Scotland and the North of England is a testament to the strength of innovative, cutting-edge talent that’s here, right on our doorstep.”

Professor Yvan Petillot from the National Robotarium, based at Heriot-Watt University said: “As a world-leading facility that promotes removing humans from hazardous work environments, this collaboration will draw upon the world-class talent of the staff at Heriot-Watt University in marine robotics and computer vision. The National Robotarium is a centre of excellence for fundamental research and knowledge exchange to address real-world challenges and industry needs. We will accelerate research from laboratory to market, paving the way for the UK to take a leadership role in telexistence technologies. Our academic team will integrate new solutions for underwater telepresence and manipulation on small to medium ROVs for remote intervention.”

Andrew Ludar-Smith, Technical Director at Resolve Robotics, said: “Resolve Robotics are collaborating with Cyberselves to enable the teleoperation of our Micro ROV, an ultra-small, underwater, remotely operated vehicle. The end result will be a robust and immersive end-user experience, creating a virtual human presence within hazardous and confined environments. Our combined technologies will enable a transformative improvement in remote intervention”

(1)  Haptic technology creates an experience of touch by applying motion, vibration, temperature or force to the user. A simple example is alerting a mobile phone user to a call using vibrations. Haptic feedback allows non-visual forms of communication between the robot and human operator, enhancing the human’s understanding of the hazardous environment and enabling clearer decision-making.

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