News briefs for the week take a look at the voyage of the autonomous research vessel Mayflower 400 across the Atlantic, Amazon’s logistics evolution from KIVA to Proteus, Robust.AI targeting the SME market with automation, cobot paint system attaining the human-impossible millionth-of-an-inch range, and Lyra, the radiation hunter, keeping humans safe.

Third time’s the charm!

Transforming ocean science

Following two aborted attempts (COVID in 2020; propulsion problem in 2021) the fully autonomous research ship, Mayflower 400, landed in Plymouth, MA on 3 July 2022, completing its 3500-mile voyage from Plymouth, England (having briefly stopped at Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) before moving south to Massachusetts).

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship project or MAS, first conceived in 2016, is led by marine research organization ProMare with financial support from IBM, acting as both lead technology partner and lead scientific partner.

Mayflower 400 is not just a pretty face to be put on display at Plymouth along within the replica of the original Mayflower. The 10,000-lb., 50 x 20-foot vessel will become an automated, remote-controlled, and preprogrammed research vessel that makes real-time decisions at sea with no human intervention.

“During its voyage, tech kit aboard helped scientists gauge the impact of global warming and pollution on marine life, such as water acidification, microplastics, and mammal conservation.” The ship even has a robotic “tongue” that actually tasted and tracked the salinity of the North Atlantic.

It will continue ocean research for years to come. “The ocean is merciless, which is part of the reason why we want to go to AI systems,” says MAS director Brett Phaneuf. “We want to send these things for very long periods to disparate parts of the ocean, and not have to worry if someone gets hurt, bored, tired, lost, or if the ship sinks.”

Amazon’s journey: KIVA to Proteus

Back in 2012, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for $775 million, bought a new system for moving goods around a warehouse. Everyone was shocked by the massive price tag and curious about the small Massachusetts-based firm called KIVA Systems that had conceived of and built the system. Bezos saw in the KIVA system of moving goods what no one else had seen. Unheard of before KIVA were small robots slipping beneath racks of goods, lifting them slightly off the ground and moving the entire rack of goods to packing stations, after which the racks were moved back into the warehouse. Called an AGV or automated guided vehicle, the robot had minimal on-board intelligence and navigated by the use of magnetic floorstrips, which “usually require extensive (and expensive) facility updates to install, during which time production may be disrupted.” Amazon, with its purchase of KIVA, including all of KIVA’s intellectual property, instantly jumped into undisputed leadership in logistics robotics. It renamed KIVA as Amazon Robotics, and has since produced nearly a dozen different, high-quality warehouse robotics. As autonomous mobile robots or AMRs, with lots of on-board intelligence, have come to quickly supplant the older and more backward AGVs, Amazon Robotics—ten years on from its KIVA Systems acquisition—has now stepped up with its own AMR called Proteus, which is Amazon’s first “fully autonomous” mobile warehouse robot (see video). According to Analytics Insights, Amazon, here in 2022, has joined “a total of 256 other global autonomous mobile robot companies.” As Amazon has said about its new AMR: “it’s been difficult to safely incorporate robotics where people are working in the same physical space as the robot. We believe Proteus will change that while remaining smart, safe, and collaborative.” With Proteus, Amazon can now compete will all the other 256 AMR makers. Amazon named its new robot after the Greek god Proteus, who possessed the gift of prophecy and the ability to alter his form at will. Hmmm. Is Amazon telling us something about the near future of its AMR by naming it Proteus? Robust.AI going small to go big It seems that Rodney Brooks has always had a penchant for the little guy who could use robotics to get a leg up on better productivity. His previous robotics outfit, Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics), gave us Baxter and then Sawyer, not for hugeconglomerates and their manufacturing and warehouse operations, but rather for the SMEs of the world. Certainly, his co-creation of the Roomba home vacuum cleaner shows his roots at how to go small to go big; Roomba revenue for 2021 was$1.5 billion.

At the recent The Digital Factory conference (May 2022), he said that his San Carlos, CA-based Robust.AI had scrapped its original reason for being and has since set “Robust.AI to bring mobile robots to unautomated warehouses.” To the small guy, he said, where severely unstructured environments were a way of life. Places that previously had just about zero automation. Automating SMEs, a task not many in robotics seem to relish these days, seems to be Brooks and Robust.AI’s raison d’être.

As Robust.AI’s homepage proclaims: “We Make Robots Work for People.”

In fact, just as his previous cobots had simple names, Baxter and Sawyer, so too does his newest: Carter (and the software it runs on is called Grace).

As Will Knight describes it in Wired : “Robust AI’s robot, Carter, looks like the kind of dolly you’d find at a home improvement store, but it has a motorized base, a touchscreen mounted above its handlebar, and a periscope with several cameras.

“It uses these cameras to scan the surrounding scene, allowing its software to identify workers nearby, and it attempts to infer what they are doing from their pose and how they are moving.

“If a human worker needs to move several boxes, for example, they can approach a Carter robot moving autonomously and, by grabbing the handlebar, take manual control. The robot can be configured to perform a variety of different tasks using a “no code” graphical interface.”

Carter is just going out for first tests with customers, says Brooks. We’ll soon see if it can negotiate the people and clutter of unstructured SME environments (see video).

Cobot paints the impossible in coatings lab

Schliersee, Germany-based WB Coatings, specialist in “intelligent” paint systems, found that conventional manual processes were inadequate to attain coatings in the millionth-of-an-inch range.

For example, plastic, decorative trims on steering wheels and automatic window switches needed a consistently high-polished chrome look. WB Coatings came up with a chrome-paint formula, but conventional methods of applying the paint to the fixtures didn’t work.

The paint-coatings specialists added a custom-built, 6-axis Durr cobot (from KUKA) to the production line. Now, the cobot’s automated spray program “ensures maximum reproducibility and starts with dosing the components in the exact same ratio every time,” says the company, which decreases the risk of inaccuracies that could arise with manual coating. The cobot automated spray system allows identical coating layer thicknesses, ensuring the quality of the coating work.

WB Coatings’ Andreas Ohletz: “Without using a robot, we would not have been able to develop these new paint systems as a chrome-free alternative for shiny, silver-colored surfaces. The challenge is to apply the coating layers of the chrome-effect paint very evenly. And the three-layer paint system in particular needs very thin, reproducible coating layers, something even highly experienced hand painters can’t achieve.”

Lyra, the radiation hunter, keeps humans safe

Lyra, a mobile, radiation-sniffing robot, shuttles along ventilator networks looking for radioactivity.

A recent job for Lyra was to travel 450 feet of ventilation ducting to hunt for and map radioactive materials, a chore that is needed more frequently as more and more nuclear powerplants are being decommissioned. Lyra thrives in impossible areas for human to access or those too dangerous.

Designed as a low-cost inspection robot, Lyra features 5 radiation detectors, a laser scanner for positioning, 2 cameras, lights and a manipulator arm that was used to take swab samples of the radioactive contamination from the wall or floor of the duct. For mobility, Lyra was fitted with tracks and given a relatively high ground clearance.

Developed by researchers at the University of Manchester, working within the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for Nuclear (RAIN) Hub, Lyra was “outfitted with a radiation sensing package designed to be able to measure beta, gammas, X-rays, and neutron radiations.” The diminutive radiation-hunter was also fitted with a 5 DoF manipulator to enable it to collect swabs for further radiological analysis at the site laboratories.”

Lyra was untethered, but did incorporate a winch retrieval mechanism, which could be used to drag Lyra back to an access point in the event of a loss of power, or to shift it off rubble if it became beached.”