Provision of Technology Infrastructure
The technology infrastructures generally encompass lab facilities, system platforms, office facilities or more generic equipment. The provision of technology infrastructure is key to the “test before invest” mantra of DIHs and may happen by means of different approaches:
Lab facilities at DIHs can serve several purposes. Perhaps the most obvious purpose is to use the labs to test and develop new technologies. However, properly planned and managed labs can also be a “show-room” where companies can display robots and systems to potential customers. To this end, in some cases, companies can be interested in providing lab equipment (e.g., robots, sensors, etc.) to be used in the lab for free or reduced cost. DIHs are encouraged to investigate whether current application-specific lab facilities can also serve as test grounds for I&M robotics. An example of such multi-use is given in the figure on the right
Example of a large-scale outdoor test facility with multiple use: The SINTEF Multiphase Flow Laboratory was designed for research on fluid-related technology, but the facility also serves as test-grounds for UAV-based inspection operations. Photo: SINTEF.
It is advantageous to have office space available in close vicinity of labs as this makes it more efficient to switch between lab work and desktop work. To reduce worker fatigue due to noise the office spaces should be sound shielded from main lab areas.
It is also beneficial to have a mechanical workshop in connection with a lab facility with a range of tools and, e.g. 3D printers for rapid prototyping. Some DIHs have dedicated mechanical engineers while in other cases mostly researchers carry out prototyping and construction of the mechanical systems used in the lab. Some DIHs have metal 3D printers, but these are currently very costly.
Proper handling of Health, Environment and Safety (HSE) is a key to a successful laboratory. HSE regulations should be put in place and followed-up. Some labs have online courses that lab workers must complete before getting the opportunity to work in the lab.
The University of Seville offers an aerial robotics lab facility with high-accuracy indoor localization system which is rented out to projects and companies. Photo: University of Seville
Example: The GRVC Robotics Laboratory at the University of Seville has provided technology infrastructure to several companies for specialising their unmanned aerial vehicles for I&M tasks in confined environment. Owing to the lack of GPS in the real-life industrial environments to be inspected, the UAVs are equipped with simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) systems that need to be parametrised to deploy safe and robust flight missions. The high-accuracy indoor localization system at the GRVC facility has allowed the involved companies to validate their SLAM functionalities and performance by comparing their systems against a ground-truth on a 28-OPTItrack Camera System. The companies that rented this lab operated their own platform in established slots and got reports of the recorded mission.
Labs are typically located at RTOs and universities, but other organizations such as SMEs, larger companies and asset owners have test facilities and in some cases these organizations are open to let other organizations access their facilities for testing. A DIH should strive to have an overview of relevant facilities so that it can advise companies looking for test facilities. Asset owners can benefit from making their facilities available for testing as the asset owners can get hands-on knowledge about the possibilities and limitations of the tested technology.
DIHs should work strategically to keep labs updated with state-of-the-art equipment. Income in connection with usage of the labs could be set aside and used for investments in lab infrastructure. DIHs should also work actively to apply for funding to purchase new equipment. Moreover, as mentioned above, DIHs can work strategically to make their labs an attractive venue for companies to display their robots and systems for use in the lab and this can lead to reduced-price and/or free equipment to the lab.
Also, a DIH may consider engaging in strategic collaborations with, e.g., robot vendors to purchase robots at a reduced price.
There is a range of equipment that can be provided as technology infrastructure, e.g.:
- Robot manipulators: E.g., industrial manipulators and collaborative robots.
- Unmanned vehicles: Unmanned ground/aerial/surface/underwater vehicles.
- Sensors: E.g., vision-based, lidars, ultrasound sensors, radars.
- Robot tools: E.g., grippers, welding tools.
It is important (and challenging) to reduce the time needed to reconfigure equipment for new system setups. Middleware solutions such as Robot Operating System (ROS) can contribute to easier reconfiguration. In a lab with unmanned vehicles it may be beneficial to have some type of high-precision localization system installed for ground-truth measurements (see figure in the example above for an example of a lab with such a system). The DIHs in RIMA offer a large range of equipment within the above categories. Some of this equipment is listed as an appendix to the 2019 RIMA open call.
Example: TNO and University of Twente operate facilities that represent realistic environments with controlled conditions for robot development, testing and development. TNO and the University of Twente operate such facilities themselves as well as that they cooperate with partners that has relevant infrastructure. As an example, the TNO Acoustic Lab and Basin offers the opportunity to validate, test and develop subsea and marine robotics solutions. The facility encompasses an 8 meters deep anechoic basis that is equipped with moving rails for accurately placing equipment underwater and validating equipment functionality in a controlled environment.