Chris Middleton explains why telexistence and teleoperation robots are a growing area of investment.

The UK’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) has announced £800,000 of new funding for companies to develop robotic ‘telexistence’ systems (see below).

The aim is to create remote robotics technologies that will help reduce risks to military personnel, emergency workers, and civilians operating in dangerous or hazardous environments.

In challenge-style competition, funded companies or institutions include: Veolia Nuclear Solutions; Cyberselves Universal; Digital Kinematics; Createc; L3Harris Technologies; Holoxica; the University of Leeds; TNO; and Sheffield Hallam University.

So what is the thinking behind the concept? First, the big picture.

Hazardous environments are a major growth area for robotics, and include applications such as subsea and offshore engineering, deep mining, rescue from natural or manmade disasters, nuclear decommissioning, space technologies – both for exploration and maintaining satellite-based communications – and systems for the defence and aerospace sectors.

Wherever it is dangerous for humans to go, researchers are developing robotic systems for those environments, both remotely operated (aka human in the loop) and autonomous.

The industrial applications of such technologies are legion, with investment preference increasingly given to systems that have ‘cross-cutting’ applications – innovations that can be used equally well in different settings, swiftly repaying investors’ confidence in them.

The UK has four academic robotic research hubs in hazardous environment robotics, one covering space technologies (FAIR-SPACE), another focusing on offshore/subsea maintenance and certification of assets (ORCA), and two in the nuclear sector (RAIN, and the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, NCNR).

An important branch of this area of robotics research is the broad mix of technologies that come under such headings as telepresence, teleoperation, and telexistence.

All focus on the remote human operation of robots, with the latter referring to systems that allow a human operator to work in far-flung or dangerous locations via an onsite robot, while feeling/sensing what the robot feels/senses (to a safe extent) as it interacts with the environment.

To a degree, the operator exists remotely within the robot as he or she carries out a critical task from a safe distance. Robotic hands, computer vision systems, haptic sensors and feedback systems, kinematic mapping, virtual and immersive reality, and telepresence are among the mix of technologies in play.

Telexistence applications might include robots working in a disaster zone, handling radioactive material or other lethal/hazardous substances, or operating in conditions where there is little light, low oxygen, or the risk of explosion.

Such systems might also be used in battlefield or physical security applications, hence the interest of organisations such as DASA – a serial investor in robotics, including in drones and autonomous vehicles.

Nine organisations, undertaking eleven different projects, share the newly announced funding via a competition that is being run on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), and managed by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

The mix of interested parties is evidence that systems are likely to have cross-cutting potential.

An announcement from the government confirms that the telexistence competition aims to “develop and demonstrate innovative technologies and novel solutions that have the potential to give military and government personnel, emergency services, or humanitarian workers the capability to operate in hazardous environments without physically being present.

“Ultimately, this capability will allow a human operator to perform complex tasks and operate equipment from a safe distance.”

Rob Baldock, Dstl Programme Manager for Emerging Technology, said, “This is the culmination of several years of developing the concept of telexistence inside Dstl from the idea of combining different areas of emerging science into the concept of projecting human presence into a remote environment, with immersive feedback for the operator.

“This has huge potential to make many highly dangerous military operations and other hazardous civil operations much safer for our frontline operators and save lives in the future.”

Nicola Armstrong, Dstl Telexistence Lead, added:

“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.”

Sara Huntingdon, the NDA’s Head of Innovation, explained:

“This competition presents a real opportunity for the NDA Group to engage with a really diverse range of ideas and new technologies developed by the supply chain, including many organisations and SMEs that we have not worked with before.

“Encouraging technology transfer across different sectors and maturing a broad range of technologies that move humans away from potentially harmful situations will benefit us all.”

Emily Tithecott, DASA Associate Delivery Manager, added:

“This competition gives us a real buzz. We are seeing more government departments teaming to fund innovations and this ensures that many different sectors benefit from the adapted technologies.”

Away from the DASA competition and hazardous environments specifically, aerospace giant Rolls Royce is one of many companies to be developing telexistence robots and teleoperation systems.

Via remote robots, the concept is that UK-based engineers will be able to maintain jet engines on the tarmac at airports around the world, without having to fly to those locations themselves to carry out the work.

In this future, a robot will be attached to an engine that is still on the wing of an aircraft and replicate the engineer’s remote actions via robotic hands, haptic feedback, and immersive computer vision.

Rolls Royce is primarily a services-based business today, meaning that it is paid when its engines are operating properly on planes in the sky, not when they are stuck on the tarmac being serviced.

The extreme time delay and expense of sending a human engineer to service an engine that may be thousands of miles away create economic, environmental, sustainability, and efficiency paybacks for being able to repair an engine more swiftly and efficiently.

Rolls Royce’s airline customers and their passengers benefit too, by being able to get planes safely back into the sky as quickly as possible, rather than experience long delays.

Oil and gas companies are also investing in the concept of using robots to repair and maintain offshore platforms. For oil giants in particular, the concept of entirely autonomous, self-maintaining oil rigs is a long-term strategic aim to lower costs and increase profits in the industry.