ROBOTICS

Revolutionary robotic invention building a better way for energy industries to operate

Connect-R – Jigsaw wins funding for Robotics and AI project: inspect, maintain and repair in extreme environments

The complex, arduous and potentially dangerous tasks of decommissioning and maintenance in the nuclear, oil and gas industries could soon be made far easier and safer, thanks to the very latest robotic advances and funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) through UK Research and Innovation.

The two year Connect-R project is a ground-breaking collaboration of renowned academics and leading engineering and robotic companies working together to transform the way these duties are carried out.

Decommissioning and maintenance in the nuclear, oil and gas industries involves a range of challenges that have no easy solutions. The required processes are inevitably difficult, costly and often carried out in places that are difficult to navigate and operate within.

These industries are typified by remote bases, dangerous chemicals and toxic and/or contaminated objects or materials: radiation in nuclear decommissioning zones is just one of the highly dangerous elements that must be managed by teams of human workers during these activities.

Connect-R is an advanced solution to the serious problems involved with working with these dangerous matters and in these difficult to traverse locations. This highly specialised robotic creation combines AI, advanced engineering techniques and the most cutting-edge research findings available at this time.

Connect-R is a unique automated design: a self-building modular robot which will construct itself methodically towards the area that needs to be accessed. Movement will be powered by a combination of hydraulic and electronic systems. The self-building process will be enabled by ‘Meccano®-like’ sections which are pre-defined for fit and systematically slotted into position to create a strong and stable framework. To ensure that the resulting construction is secure and correctly positioned in the relevant terrain the robot will utilise sophisticated AI to sense and respond to its immediate surroundings throughout the build process.

In this way a structure enabling access to the required work site will be built, not only without human intervention, but without the mistakes more likely to be caused by workers operating under pressure and in hostile environments. Unaffected by radiation and the effects of chemicals, gases and other toxins, the automated structure also eliminates the need to expose people to these dangers. In addition to gaining access to sites and creating a platform for ready access, the Connect-R system can construct into a robotic arm, articulating derrick or act as a channel providing necessities like gas, water or power to the labour site.

This system is only one element of the overall scheme. The Connect-R project is intended to provide a complete solution to the problems of operating in these environments. The team will design a ‘Multi-task Bot’ to work alongside the Connect-R structure to facilitate sensor deployment and environmental mapping and sampling.
The Multi-task Bot will also be able to traverse existing structures to perform similar operations in other types of environment.

The Connect-R project unites a host of forward-thinking organisations with a range of skills and specialisms.

Project lead Barrnon is a renowned engineering services provider with over ten years ‘experience in delivering solutions to some of the world’s most challenging decommissioning problems. The firm will be working with RACE – a centre of excellence for Remote Applications in Challenging Environments – a specialised subdivision of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Also members of team Connect-R are three pioneering private companies. Tharsus is one of Europe’s fastest growing technology businesses, an established designer and manufacturer of advanced machines and robots, many of which are the first of their kind. Ross Robotics is the developer of the Robosynthesis modular reconfigurable robotics platform and similar modular robotic creations. Jigsaw Structures is an innovator in the field of lightweight engineering structures and is exploring telescopic actuation and alternative snap-fit, quick-release solutions to traditional end-connection joining methods.

The line-up is completed by leading academics at two prestigious and respected UK Universities: Royal Holloway University of London and the University of Edinburgh. With researchers specialising in intelligent and autonomous systems and in robotics, sensors, and complexity-science and fluidics respectively, the two institutions operate at the cutting edge of what is possible in the field and can explore the very latest possibilities.

The Connect-R project has the potential to completely transform the way vital operations are carried out in inhospitable environments. The team’s progress will be keenly watched by many.