At the Hannover Fair last month in Germany, Microsoft’s huge booth was an array of partner demonstrations. One of the coolest was from Sarcos Robotics, which was showing off its snake-like robot that can provide inspection and surveillance in challenging environments.
Sarcos took the opportunity of the world’s largest industrial fair to announce availability of its Guardian S, a compact, camera-equipped mobile robot that can crawl on its magnetized tracks along environments like stairs, culverts, pipes, tanks, vertical ferromagnetic surfaces and confined spaces. If you’re wondering where Microsoft comes into the picture, it’s through the Guardian S’s cloud-connected mobile Internet of Things (IoT) platform.
Hazardous, confined spaces like tunnels, pipelines and ship holds killed 136 U.S. workers in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from an annual average of 96 deaths in the preceding decade.
The snake bot aims not to replace workers, but rather improve safety and efficiency for them. Optimized for unstructured and unpredictable environments, the Guardian S provides real-time information and data to the human operator while keeping them out of harm’s way. It is uniquely designed to go where other robots can’t, and humans shouldn’t, including confined spaces and hard-to-reach structures.
In addition to public safety applications, the Guardian S is well suited for a number of continuous process industries—mining, oil and gas, power generation and more. One use case is to inspect tank integrity in oil and gas, noted Kristi Martindale, chief marketing officer for Sarcos, during a conversation at Hannover Fair.
Another is for annual boiler room inspections at a power plant. Martindale described a typical scenario in which the boiler room must be cooled down for workers to enter, and scaffolding must be constructed for the workers to inspect the walls. This whole process typically takes about five days, she noted. Instead, the Guardian S could go in and scale the walls without any need to cool the room down or build scaffolding. “Then you could send any of that data to the cloud to do the necessary data analytics,” she added.
The Guardian S is well suited to hazmat scenarios as well, which might commonly take two teams—about 20 people—to evaluate a hazardous area. Outfitted with biochem sensors, the robot could go in first before any people enter the area. “Then the people know what they’re going into,” Martindale said. “When they do have to go in, they can be more effective.”
The robot facilitates two-way real-time video, voice and data communication. Because it is small and light (13.5 lbs), it fits easily in carry-on luggage, Martindale noted, and can be easily carried to where it’s needed. DIN rails can be added to the robot to enable the up to 10 lb payload, which could, for example, be used to carry a communication device in to somebody trapped somewhere that people or other types of robots might not be able to get to.
Once on location, an operator can turn the Guardian S on, allowing it to wirelessly sync with a Windows-based tablet that’s fitted with joysticks for steering the device and touch-sensitive screens that show the snake’s movements.
The robot integrates the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform and the Microsoft Azure IoT Suite, and leverages Windows 10 for the tablet controller. The cloud computing platform enables customers to collect, store and analyze sensor data in environments or for applications where it is not feasible to deploy fixed sensors.
“We recognize that drones and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are doing an incredible job of collecting useful data about wide-open environments, but we see an opportunity for collecting data in confined or enclosed spaces, or circumstances that require hours, not minutes, of data collection, or where data can only be collected by placing sensors in close proximity to, or in contact with, a surface,” said Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO of Sarcos. “We designed the Guardian S to address these challenges. The Guardian S is the first multi-purpose, man-portable, wirelessly controlled, unmanned ground vehicle, capable of traversing challenging terrain, climbing vertically and even inverted, that acts as a mobile IoT platform to carry multiple sensor payloads.”
Some key capabilities:
- Ability to carry a 10 lb payload while traversing a horizontal surface.
- Accessing confined spaces with openings that are 5 inches high or more.
- IP67 certification makes it waterproof and capable of decontamination after exposure to chemicals or other hazardous elements.
- 18+ hours of surveillance time and a 4 mile travel range.
- Wireless and wired broadband communication options available.
- Multiple, customizable sensor packages that can be carried or installed, including infrared, biochem, radiation, gas, vibration, GPS, accelerometer, 3D mapping, and 360-degree video with low light capabilities.
Two-way audio allows operators to listen to an environment. Sensors can report things like temperature and humidity, probes can find cracks or weaknesses on a structure’s surface, and sonar can check for soft spots in welds or seams.
The snake can move forward, backward or side-to-side, and can even roll back over if it flips accidentally. It can twist into a variety of configurations, including a Z shape, to increase stability and squeeze through difficult spots.
The cloud connectivity through Microsoft’s platforms, which is optional with the Guardian S, enables secure storage and retrieval of environmental video, audio and sensor data, in addition to information on the health and operation of the robot. The combination of IoT sensors and Azure services has proven valuable for evaluating the performance of, and predicting required maintenance for the various industrial machines in which they are placed. The Guardian S mobile IoT platform also collects and analyzes data about the environment surrounding the robot for enhanced mission awareness and success.
Sarcos is raising the bar for traditional ground robots, according to Caglayan Arkan, general manager of worldwide manufacturing at Microsoft. “Microsoft is thrilled to work with Sarcos—a global leader in the development of dexterous robots for unstructured and unpredictable environments—on the commercialization of the Guardian S,” he said. “They have created robots no one ever thought were possible with the mission of saving lives, preventing injury, and enhancing efficiency. The Guardian S integrates our Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform, Azure IoT Suite and Windows 10 for the controller, making it one of the first truly mobile IoT robotic platforms available today.”
Sarcos continues to study more possible use cases for the Guardian S, which will be commercially available in August.