Most successful businesses start with a simple solution to a complex problem. For Australian robotics company Blueprint Lab, it was quite the opposite.
“I’d say we had a very complex idea to solve a simple problem,” says Blueprint co-founder and CEO Paul Phillips.
“But the technology needs to be complex, because these simple problems, like turning a valve or cutting a cable, are occurring in potentially dangerous environments.”
Specialising in complexity has paid off for Blueprint Lab, which Phillips started 2016 with fellow University of Sydney engineering alumnus Mark Sproule.
Now comprising a team of around 30, the company’s customer base spans 15 countries. It has sold more than 450 robotic manipulators, and the various iterations of its flagship Reach Alpha and Reach Bravo products extend human range into harsh conditions.
“We pretty much specialise in manipulators, whereas other companies may develop manipulators, remotely operated vehicles [ROVs], and other products,” says Phillips.
Where humans fear to tread
Integrated with ROVs, Blueprint Lab manipulators are controlled via a simple human–machine interface with features including kinematic control and real-time accurate position, current and velocity readings.
Applications include search and recovery operations, conducting offshore infrastructure inspection for oil and gas operations, collecting samples for marine science research, and special recovery operations by the military and civil first responders.
The Reach Alpha 3 robotic manipulators, for instance, are assisting the Turkish police force in recovering victims from shipwrecks and other coastal accidents.
The Reach Bravo arms are helping to maintain subsea infrastructure in places like Australia’s North West Shelf by completing highly dexterous tasks, such as tying knots, attaching carabiners, or fastening nuts to bolts hundreds of metres beneath the surface.
Soon, the technology may be heading into space in collaboration with the University of New South Wales.
Philips was introduced to subsea manipulator technology while completing an internship with West Australian underwater equipment company Seatools.
After graduating, he worked as a mechatronics engineer in the aerospace industry, but his passion remained under the sea.
His goal was to create the world’s smallest and most dextrous underwater robotic arm, which was achieved in 2018 with the release of the Reach Alpha.
Armed with electricity
Size is a key point of difference for Blueprint Lab’s technology. The Reach Alpha 5, for instance, is just 230 x 150 x 40 mm when curled up and about 580 mm at full extension.
It has a dynamic reach of around 400 mm and is designed to operate at depths of up to 300 m. It can lift 2kg of weight at full reach and its interchangeable end-effectors include standard pincer grips, quad jaws, specialised recovery jaws, needle nose grippers and rope cutter jaws.
The units are primarily made of hard anodised aluminium but can also be made from stainless steel for harsher environments or where increased strength is required.
Unlike typical hydraulic manipulators, Blueprint Lab’s units are all electric, which makes them more suitable for use with compact electric ROVs.
“We experimented with different gear technology, different motor technology and all the primary components, and then tried to fit everything into the tightest possible package,” says Phillips.
Into the deep
Blueprint Lab robotic manipulators feature a patented joint design, which allows for compact drive mechanisms and minimal pressure seals.
This reduces the risk of leakage and protects individual modules in the manipulator system.
The seven-function Reach Bravo model has more advanced kinematics than the Alpha, which makes it more dextrous and suitable for advanced inspection tasks.
If a valve needs to be turned on a subsea asset, for instance, the user interface marks out the axis of rotation for the Bravo to do the work.
The Bravo has a reach of close to one metre at full extension and its grip is roughly the size of an adult human hand. With more than 100 Nm of torque in each joint, it can lift 10 to 20 kg, depending on the position.
For organisations like global geo-data specialist Fugro, Blueprint Lab’s Reach Bravo manipulators are used to inspect, maintain and repair oil and gas-related subsea infrastructure in locations such as Bass Strait and the North West Shelf.
Fugro has integrated the Reach Bravo robotic arms on a range of ROVs, which are coupled with unmanned service vessels located hundreds of kilometres offshore and controlled via a user interface in Fugro’s Perth-based operations.
“We chose the Bravo because it is electric and therefore more compact than a hydraulic manipulator,” says Alex Murphy, Systems Integration Engineer at Fugro.
“We also selected it for its form factor and dexterity. When you need to plug in or remove things underwater or take a reading out of a corrosion prevention system, dexterity is essential.”
The practical approach
Engineering talent at Blueprint Lab extends from mechatronics to biomedical, electrical, aerospace and computational.
“I really value a practical approach to engineering,” says Phillips.
“We develop a lot of hardware in house and build very complicated mechanical assemblies. All the theory in the world only gets you so far when it comes to putting these kinds of things together.”
Engineers like McLean are currently working on a project to achieve user-in-the-loop automation, which will enable the manipulator to carry out tasks undisturbed by factors such as sea currents.
“If you have a manipulator integrated in front of an ROV in the water, the currents might move it around slightly and therefore the task you’re trying to achieve is more difficult,” says McLean.
“We want to remove these disturbances from the system so the user can just focus on doing the task at hand.”
For Phillips, the goal is to create robotic arms that can mimic what a diver could achieve underwater.
“This is not only from a dexterity perspective, but also perception — that innate ability to try to make decisions and perceive the world around you to interact with objects,” he says.
“Something like turning a valve would become incredibly simple, as it would be for a diver. But there’s still some way to go to make it a simple task for a robot.”