Automation hardware and software is being applied in industries from energy to aircraft. Here’s a selection of current innovations
The US Office of Naval Research is sponsoring research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that’s borrowing automation ideas to simplify the parking of aircraft on the cramped decks of US Navy aircraft carriers. Current methods use a “Ouija board” with metal models of planes, much as you see in old war-time black and white films. MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab has used automation algorithms to design a computer interface to track incoming flight data and create new deck operation schedules. Researchers say the algorithms do well what humans often cannot: such as compensate for when things don’t work out quite as intended. The system is not meant to replace the human operators, but to suggest options. And automation systems will also link to sensors on board the increasing numbers of unmanned drone planes used by armed forces.
The nuclear sector has long used bespoke automation systems for remote handling of fuel and equipment where to use human staff would be unsafe or undesirable. The next generation of nuclear stations planned for the UK will expand the use of automation with a deal signed between the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the systems and software group Dassault Systèmes. The Nuclear AMRC’s role is to develop UK manufacturing skills for the new nuclear stations, and the centre will use Delmia production simulation tools to design efficient manufacturing systems and develop nuclear plant layouts with optimised process flows and simulated equipment, including robotics.
Getting a leg up
Animals have legs and vehicles have wheels – and both methods of locomotion have advantages. Engineering students at the National Taiwan University featured at last month’s international student awards organised by the automation and systems group National Instruments with a hybrid “leg-wheel” robot device. This rolls along smooth surfaces but can then transform automatically to a legged version to climb over more difficult terrain. The robot uses wheels that have a detachable section of rim, with the remainder of the rim then becoming a “leg”. The key is a “hip joint” that is programmed to handle both the rotary wheel motion and the walking motion and relay power from a single source for either mode.
Neil Wilks writes about new technology, engineering and environmental issues. He contributes regularly to test and sensor technology magazine, Environmental Engineering.