Greener Robots?

I’m very fond of robotics and automation projects, so I was excited to receive a call from my former colleagues to assist them with a robotics contract.

I ended up engaged in a subcontract to an international robotics consortium with a mission to deliver an autonomous robotic system for a perimeter security.

The deliverables consisted of several unmanned ground vehicle prototypes (UGVs) and C4i station that controls the mission parameters, displays mission status including whereabouts of the vehicles on a digital map.

I was tasked with the project coordination and collaborating on design and vehicle build. It was very refreshing to wear my engineering hat and get my hands dirty at the same time again.

I admit, I’m blessed having no shortage of interesting work in my life...

Loving things green, this project was especially interesting since it dealt with the concept of a plug in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) with an extended range. The range extension was provided by a small on-board gasoline generator supplying energy to the vehicle once the battery pack was getting depleted. This was a concept not unlike the one of Chevy Volt about to be released by GM.

If you fast forward in time, the gas genset can be replaced by my other favourite technology of the near future – Hydrogen fuel cells, but about this, some other time...

We have started the project with a review of an existing remote control vehicle equipped with an analogue control system. We ended up ripping the existing system out and redesigned the electrical system and propulsion to take it to the next level of performance and reliability.

The next stage in the project was the sourcing and integration of power components, navigation and obstacle detection sensors, cameras, communications, computers and other peripherals to turn the vehicle into a real robot. Naturally, we had to figure out a correct placement and provide proper support structures for all these components.

We have done plenty of measuring, modeling, laying out, cutting, drilling and welding to accomplish this.

Li-Ion (LiFePO4) battery packs were used for energy storage, requiring us to research and introduce entirely new concept to us – a Battery Management System (BMS).

While Lithium-Ion cells are incredible devices in terms of power density and performance, the battery packs of Li-Ion cells require extra care that is provided by the BMS.

We have acquired the BMS / Li-Ion battery storage expertise through study of scarce resources of the subject matter as well as trial and error. Luckily, we managed to keep the smoke inside the batteries and associated circuitry.

No fire extinguishers were needed and the system performed as expected.

The obvious and most important glue-ware in robotic projects is the software that makes the entire system tick and do something useful for the client.

While robots have the definite coolness factor, they have to perform value adding tasks to us humans otherwise they become useless from the business perspective and soon find themselves on their way to a museum or a junkyard.

On this project, I have not been involved in the software development, but have to pause here and give my friends at Provectus A+ grade for their outstanding work.

They have been able to develop the software from scratch in record time. It both served the functional requirements and proved rock solid during the trials and demonstrations.

Working with the professionals at Provectus has been a real treat for me. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, dedication and professionalism the project was a total success, concluded by a series of demonstrations to clients overseas.