Are autonomous legged robots a technical shenanigan or are they the sensible supplementation to known solutions, like automated guided transport systems, self-propelled robots on wheels or robot crawlers? ANYbotocs proves the latter is the case.
ANYbotics AG, in Zurich, a spin-off of ETH Zurich founded in 2016, has a clear vision: the use of ANYmal legged robots in environments that were created for humans but in certain circumstances are stressful or even dangerous. These environments can be found, for example, in the chemical processing industry, on offshore oil platforms, in underground mining facilities or construction sites - just to mention a few, typical applications.
In order to safely operate undisturbed and safely in this kind of environment, routine inspections and patrols are needed, which currently are performed by employees of the applicable operating organizations - sometimes under difficult conditions. They read control indicators for pressure, temperature, fill levels or through-flow and check adherence to thresholds. Additionally they can see and hear precisely: because that is decisive for discovering leaks at flange connections, diagnosing looming wear and tear of moving parts, so-called bearing damage, based on noise development and recognizing damage from mechanical impact or apparent corrosion.
Cost-saving delegation of surveillance tasks
Numerous systems have a useful life of well over ten years in constant operation. A shutdown due, perhaps, to a defect pump usually causes very high costs, which one tries to avoid with the preventative deployment of the applicable man power. This, too, usually represents a significant cost factor, for example, when helicopter transport is needed to an offshore platform or the like.
Automating and digitalization of surveillance tasks, taking cost aspects into consideration, is very expensive and nearly impossible. Thorough equipment with sensors connected to a control center would initially cost the same for a system long in operation as it is for a new system.
Here is where the approach from ANYbotics comes into play: an autonomous legged robot, which like a human is able to move autonomously though a complex environment with stairs and unexpected obstacles and is equipped with powerful sensors and the necessary on-board data processing capability. Especially in this environment, which houses hazards to humans or because of heat, dust or even the monotony of constant rounds causes stress, this allows a simple way of automating and digitalizing precisely this task.
Intensive research as the basis
In long standing research work at ETH Zurich, since 2009, the basic concepts were developed that were essential to the autonomous legged robots: a decisive role is played by the kinematic of walking, also on a surface with the occurrence of unexpected obstacles or disruptions - like when objects such as stones, cables or pipes are suddenly in the path. Digitalization of the environment is also indispensable, as well as autonomous orientation within it without an additional control system. On top of that is to recognize, readout and interpret displays, like an analog temperature gage.
In 2016, the founding of ANYbotics followed with the clear goal of bundling this technology into a solution for the applications described above and to commodify it.
One platform, many modifications
Due to the varying application environments, ANYbotics decided on a single platform concept: the ANYmal base device encompasses the functions of walking, room orientation, communication and basic sensor application. Specific payloads can be mounted on it, such as thermal cameras for the detection of hot spots, laser scanners for measuring the environment with millimeter precision or even a manipulator arm for operating valves or opening doors. With this concept bundling can occur, also in procurement and production, because the basic device is the same in any case, and the creation of variants can occur in the last step.
The proof of concept was verified in successful pilot applications in customer systems. Building on that, the business plan for marketing was actively pursued. Contingent to this was the search for a powerful partner for serial production of the ANYmal legged robot because ANYbotics was strategically focused from the early stages on marketing and product development as their core competencies.
Zollner convincing during partner choosing
At the end of the selection process, the nod went to Zollner Electronics GmbH, in Hombrechtikon: proximity, expertise in the production of high-value, mechatronic systems and access to powerful resources in the area of research & development, test and the supply chain from the parent company for expanded support for ANYbotics were the significant criteria for the decision, along with our competitiveness.
In light of the complexity of an ANYmal system, which is made up of more than 400 individual components and many software elements, a great deal of implicit knowledge needed to be transferred from research & development into production - close proximity paid off here, which allowed for brisk exchange and a very short feedback loop.
This is very valuable looking at future (further) development of the products because this way the comprehensive knowledge of the Zollner Group in the areas of DfX (Design for Manufacturing, Design for Testing, Design for Cost, et cetera), with around 11,500 employees around the globe, can be activated early and utilized. Even in the case of ‘errors’, intervention can occur within a day, no long transport routes or customs handling are necessary.
Everything for smooth production
Further aspects are represented by the topic range of Lean Manufacturing and Traceability: these implemented processes and infrastructures at Zollner Electronics GmbH allow economically viable production of functionally critical components from the start, taking variants and traceability into consideration.
Should it be necessary to replace such components ahead of time, the part can be determined easily and accomplished with the help of traceability. For example, in the application of an ANYmal legged robot on an offshore platform, this results in significant cost saving.
And because every production starts with procurement of the necessary components, ANYbotics can rely on the powerful, globally operating purchasing organization of the Zollner Group in this area - this is an advantage not to be underestimated, particularly in the currently tense situation.
Alone the selection and qualification of a reliable supplier can decide in such situations whether or not delivery capability can be guaranteed. Here, too, decisive advantages can be had from a symbiosis of the various strengths of the partner - choice of a technically optimal solution from a development viewpoint versus selection of the best source of supply.
Martin Bühlmann, COO of ANYbotics, knows the value of this: “The experiences we have had so far in startup have confirmed our decision in favor of Zollner Electronics GmbH as our production partner. We are experiencing nearly daily benefit from the close geographic proximity in combination with the resources from the parent company. We are convinced that, even upon growing volume, the scalability of production will be mastered by Zollner.” The enthusiasm for this collaboration is mutual, as Walther Pfeiffer, Managing Director of Zollner Electronics GmbH, emphasizes: “We are very happy about the decision by ANYbotics to choose us and the trust with which we were met. Due to the fact that we, too, as part of the Zollner Group of companies, are investing heavily in automation and digitalization, we see a large growth market for the products from ANYbotics and happily contribute our part to the success of these products.”
Zollner knows robots
A connecting element between the two companies can also be seen in the world’s largest walking robot, Tradinno (Tradition and Innovation), which Zollner developed and built from 2007 to 2010 as a unicum for the folks festival in Eastern Bavarian Furth im Wald.