Creating the world’s smallest and most dextrous underwater robotic arm

The majority of successful firms begin with a simple answer to a difficult problem. It was the polar opposite for Blueprint Lab, an Australian robotics business.

“I’d say we had a very complex idea to solve a simple problem,” blueprint co-founder and CEO Paul Phillips states.

“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.”

Blueprint Lab, founded by Phillips and fellow University of Sydney engineering alumnus Mark Sproule in 2016, has reaped the benefits of specializing in complexity.

The company's customer base now spans 15 nations, with a team of about 30 people. It has sold over 450 robotic manipulators, and its flagship Reach Alpha and Reach Bravo products in various incarnations expand human range into hazardous environments.

“We pretty much specialise in manipulators, whereas other companies may develop manipulators, remotely operated vehicles [ROVs], and other products,” Phillips adds.

Where humans fear to tread

Blueprint Lab manipulators are integrated with ROVs and operated using a simple human–machine interface that includes kinematic control and real-time accurate location, current, and velocity information.

Search and recovery operations, offshore infrastructure inspection for oil and gas activities, collecting samples for marine science research, and special recovery operations by military and civilian first responders are just a few of the applications.

For example, the Reach Alpha 3 robotic manipulators are helping Turkish police recover victims from shipwrecks and other coastal incidents.

The Reach Bravo arms perform highly dexterous operations such as tying knots, attaching carabiners, and fastening nuts to bolts hundreds of meters beneath the surface to help maintain subsea infrastructure in places like Australia's North West Shelf.

In conjunction with the University of New South Wales, the device could soon be launched into space.

While interning with West Australian undersea equipment manufacturer Seatools, Philips was introduced to subsea manipulator technology.

He worked as a mechatronics engineer in the aerospace business after graduation, but his heart was still in the sea.

His goal was to develop the world's smallest and most dextrous underwater robotic arm, which he succeeded in doing in 2018 with the Reach Alpha.

Armed with electricity

Blueprint Lab's technology has a significant size advantage. When curled up, the Reach Alpha 5 measures only 230 x 150 x 40 mm, and at maximum extension, it's around 580 mm.

It has a dynamic reach of roughly 400 mm and is capable of working at depths of up to 300 meters. Standard pincer grips, quad jaws, specialized recovery jaws, needle nose grippers, and rope cutter jaws are some of the interchangeable end-effectors.

The units are typically made of hard anodized aluminum, although they can alternatively be made of stainless steel for harsher situations or enhanced robustness.

Unlike traditional hydraulic manipulators, Blueprint Lab's units are entirely powered by electricity, making them ideal for use with small 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,” Phillips explains.

Into the deep

The innovative joint design of Blueprint Lab robotic manipulators enables for compact driving systems and minimal pressure seals.

This decreases the possibility of leaking and safeguards individual manipulator modules.

The Reach Bravo model, which has seven functions, has more advanced kinematics than the Alpha, making it more dextrous and ideal for advanced inspection duties.

If a valve on a subsea asset has to be turned on, for example, the user interface indicates out the rotation axis for the Bravo to follow.

At full extension, the Bravo has a reach of nearly one metre, and its grip is about the size of an adult human hand. It can lift 10 to 20 kg, depending on the position, with more than 100 Nm of torque in each joint.

Blueprint Lab's Reach Bravo manipulators are used by companies like Fugro to inspect, maintain, and repair oil and gas-related subsea infrastructure in places like the Bass Strait and the North West Shelf.

Fugro has installed Reach Bravo robotic arms on a variety of ROVs, which are linked to unmanned service vessels hundreds of kilometers offshore and managed from Fugro's Perth headquarters via a user interface.

“We chose the Bravo because it is electric and therefore more compact than a hydraulic manipulator,” says Alex Murphy, Fugro's Systems Integration Engineer.

“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

Mechatronics, biomedical, electrical, aeronautical, and computational engineering are all represented in Blueprint Lab.

“I really value a practical approach to engineering,” Phillips says. 

“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 presently working on a project to achieve user-in-the-loop automation, which will allow the manipulator to do tasks without being hampered by external influences like 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,” McLean explains.

“We want to remove these disturbances from the system so the user can just focus on doing the task at hand.”

Phillips' goal is to develop robotic arms that can perform underwater in the same way that a diver can.

“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.” 
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