Early successes in EESE student telerobotics projects
November and December saw a number of successful conclusions to early project research and teaching outcomes for undergraduate and postgraduate students alike. Focusing on the topic of telepresence or telerobotics, the achievements range from the development of a new, very low-cost robot arm and hand to innovative designs for hospital robots!
Firstly, and in preparation for their Spring Semester Final Year projects, Third Year students successfully tank-tested the main chassis and thruster systems for their remotely operated submersible just prior to their first Bench Inspection in early December. This is the first time in four years of running this BEng project that the system has been tank-tested so early. Nevertheless, the ROV performed without the appearance of bubbles, leaks or sparks and was voted a great success! Recognition should also be given to our technical support staff in helping to make this achievement happen, and Andy Dunn, Alan Yates and Donna Johnson were on hand to help make the ROV’s first “immersion” pass off smoothly. In 2014, the students will move on to their own specific technical project areas, with the aim of developing control systems for such elements of the ROV as motor control and stability/trim, the human-machine interface, basic underwater sensing systems and auto-heading/depth-keeping. If all goes to plan, the ROV will be made ready for its first dive at sea, either down to the helicopter deck of the ex-Royal Navy frigate, the Scylla, or, if weather on the day is too inclement, to the remains of the 1965 British Underwater Habitat, the GLAUCUS (see previous EESE news item). The dive is scheduled for mid-March 2014 (and will coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the scuttling of the Scylla to become an artificial reef).
Another remotely operated system project underwent a further test in November. The HIT Team’s Hexacopter (as described in previous EESE news items) was deployed to conduct a detailed aerial survey of two vessels embedded into the banks of the River Severn at Purton, home of the famous “ships’ graveyard”). Briefly, the Purton graveyard consists of the remains of over 80 barges, boats and ships, each of which were deliberately rammed into the riverside in the early 1900s to prevent erosion from ultimately compromising the Sharpness & Gloucester Canal. Hosted by the Friends of Purton (http://www.friendsofpurton.org.uk/), the Team flew the hexacopter, equipped with its gimbal-stabilised high-definition camera over the wrecks of the Harriett (the last known example of a Kennet-built barge within the UK) and the Dispatch (an impressive 119 ton topsail schooner built in 1888). Once again the hexacopter performed flawlessly and some extremely impressive images and video footage was captured of these and many other vessels, not to mention the River Severn and the Sharpness & Gloucester Canal. The plan is to develop Augmented Reality recreations of these two vessels and to enlist future students to help develop digital education exhibits of as many vessels as possible, before they disappear forever beneath the ever encroaching sands.
Another impressive achievement in the past two months has been the part-time development by one of our PhD students of a very low-cost robot arm and hand system. The aim was to develop a teleoperated robot forearm, wrist and as dextrous a hand as the technology would support using off-the-shelf components and 3D-printed structural modules. What has been achieved is a simple bilateral system, with piezo-electric transducers integrated within a glove-like, interface (featuring finger flex sensors), enabling the human operator to both control the remote robot hand and receive simple tactile feedback from force sensitive resistors mounted onto each digit. All 5 fingers of the hand move independently and are controlled by 5 servos embedded within the forearm The total cost of the remote hand and Arduino Controller amounts to £180 (although this will reduce by £80 once the HIT team’s 3D printers are fully online), with the glove costing around £85. We look forward to testing the synthetic limb early in 2014. Already expressions of interest relating to the potential for developing very low-cost prosthetics have been received by the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine.
Finally, and remaining on the topic of robotics, a very interesting First Year Student Group project was completed in early December. Coordinated by EESE academics Tim Jackson and Bob Stone, the students were tasked to design a robot to assist patients in an Intensive Care Unit by thinking carefully about the robot’s functions, how it might interact with patients and healthcare personnel, health, safety, hygiene issues, and so on. To support this, Dr Charlotte Small, our anaesthetist colleague from the QEH who is involved in a range of EESE-related healthcare projects, agreed to give an ICU scene-setting lecture to the students. As part of this tasking, they were required to use the Sketchup 3D modelling tool to develop a 3D version of their final design concept. A range of interesting designs were put forward – some were very well thought-through indeed, especially given the harsh and sterile nature of the context in which, were they ever built, they were destined to work alongside humans.