A multi-limbed climbing robot is emerging out of UTS Tech Lab, and with the support of UTS Startups, a new venture, Crest Robotics is working to realise the technology’s vast commercial potential.
The build of the world’s first parrot-inspired climbing robot could remove the need for humans to work at dangerous heights and reduce the cost of critical infrastructure on earth, and beyond.
ParCli (PARrot-CLImbing robot) is a three-limbed climbing robot, inspired by the biology and movement of parrots.
At “proof-of-concept” stage, the robot’s research, design and build have been led by UTS PhD Candidate in Robotics Clyde Webster, under the supervision of Prof. Robert Fitch at UTS Tech Lab. He is also working with UTS Startups on how to commercialise the product via Crest Robotics, the business he has founded.
Webster has developed ParCli to validate new theories and approaches in the creation of advanced climbing robots that will revolutionise the way maintenance operations are performed on large structural assets such as energy and telecommunications infrastructure, bridges and eventually, the International Space Station and other space assets.
ParCli’s successor, which Crest Robotics is currently developing at UTS Tech Lab will be the company’s first minimum viable product, and will be focussed on the task of power transmission tower maintenance.
Working in sparse vertical structures is an incredibly laborious and costly job. Maintenance and repair activities are vital to ensure we get the most out of these assets but this work is expensive, dangerous, and highly repetitive. Reducing costs by enabling autonomous inspection and maintenance will allow proper care for these assets and prevent unsustainable outcomes like asset replacement.
Reducing maintenance costs can also ensure prices for services like energy can be kept as low as practicable, and ensure scheduled power outages from providers are minimised.
Climbing robots are notoriously difficult to develop.
Webster’s PhD co-supervisor and primary collaborator, Dr Felix Kong, says there are initial gravity-defying challenges to overcome, such as how to adhere to upright structures and propel themselves up and down.
However, the key complexity lies in how to enable the robot to move around at height – the ‘locomotion problem’ – and also imbuing it with the ability to perform the functions needed on structures, such as grinding, blasting, cutting, welding, and painting.
Enabling robots to climb, move around at height and do work, has proven a major stumbling block to robotic engineers the world over.
Webster says his point of difference is concentrating thinking and research on developing a climbing robot “that can do maintenance tasks innately without making significant modifications to the base concept, such as adding an additional limb”.
And this is where the parrots come in.
Observing how effective parrots can be at climbing and manipulating objects, we began studying this form and learned from their specific adaptations which have led to more effective robot design,” Webster says.
“You’ll not need to add an additional limb to do work with my design. The primary limb will be capable both of locomotion and in performing maintenance activities, very similar to how cockatoos devilishly use their beaks.
ParCli comprises 14 actuators and is made from a combination of laser-sintered nylon, (tiny bits of nylon powder fused together by a high-powered laser similar to 3-D printing) steel, aluminium, and carbon fibre. All parts were made in UTS workshops or at UTS ProtoSpace.
Testing is ongoing and at this stage, ParCli is climbing the specific ladder built for it in the lab. But with the concept proven, the way is paved for more complex future iterations, designed for a large variety of structures including electrical transmission and telecommunications towers, offshore oil rigs, and even large space structures like the International Space Station and satellites currently out of reach.
In all of these, what we’re really aiming for is to expose robots to the most dangerous parts of the job instead of humans. This has advantages in so many areas – primarily worker safety, but also reducing the cost and risk of doing this maintenance,” Kong says.
“One possibility we’re really excited about is to enable new practices, which might be beneficial to the surrounding community or environment, but are currently impracticable or costly to complete with human labour.
The robot has already piqued industry interest with Crest Robotics recently partnering with Temco, a business that performs maintenance on power transmission towers across Australasia, to help fast-track the commercialisation of the technology.
Webster says Temco has validated a significant portion of his company’s value propositions, as well as provided additional benefits it had not previously considered.
“From a technological perspective, most of the right pieces exist already and only small advances in particular areas are needed to get ParCli as a system across the line.”
With a “very limited” supply of money and time to complete the project, Webster says the ability to use UTS’s manufacturing resources was crucial to producing a robot prototype from conception to implementation, with the initial prototype going from design, to being on the wall to begin testing in just eight weeks.
The complementary resources of UTS Tech Lab and UTS Startups have proven critical in getting his vision so close to being realised.
UTS has a great range of facilities, capabilities, and technical expertise. Crest Robotics is working on technology that is at the bleeding edge of its industry, so much so that working with researchers to translate research directly to practice is almost a necessity.
UTS Startups is a great community for UTS students and alumni to support each other on their entrepreneurial journey and connect with the greater startup eco system, while UTS Tech Lab has a great range of capabilities that can be an asset to any company looking to innovate.