Robot that recognises failure is in pipeline

Pioneers Francesco Maurelli, Tom Larkworthy and David Lane

Pioneers Francesco Maurelli, Tom Larkworthy and David Lane

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A TEAM of city scientists are working to create a £2 million robot intelligent enough to know when it has failed.

Eight scientists at Heriot-Watt University are leading a pan-European project to create a robot that can operate on its own to inspect, repair and maintain oil wells on the sea bed.

The university said the creation would be “the most advanced, autonomous and cognitive robot”, and could help to dramatically reduce the cost of underwater monitoring operations and maintenance within the oil and gas industry.

The team from the Ocean Systems Laboratory (OSL) at Heriot-Watt is being led by Professor David Lane, the founder of Heriot-Watt spin-out company SeeByte.

Prof Lane, who lives in Blackhall, said: “Autonomous robots have produced tremendous benefits but currently still face limitations.

“They often get stuck or ask for help and generally only succeed in familiar environments, when carrying out simple tasks.

“Over the next three years, our challenge is to develop robots able to recognise failure and have the intelligence to respond to it. We are developing techniques that make the robot smart enough so that it can recognise when it’s done something wrong and try to fix it. We have got five robots at the university already but the part that’s missing is the learning software, because that changes the robot’s behaviour.”

Following the Deepwater Horizon crisis in April 2010, which killed 11 workers and spilled four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, calls have been made to improve the type and intelligence of robots used for underwater inspection and intervention.

The European Commission asked for ideas to increase the thinking capacity of robots, and the Heriot-Watt team applied to the commission with a three-year research plan for global commercial use.

Their system, named PANDORA (Persistent Autonomy through learNing, aDaptation, Observation and Re-plAnning), was awarded £2.3m in funding to create the robot.

Prof Lane added: “The new robot wouldn’t stop something like the Deepwater Horizon crisis happening but it could help with the clean-up.

“For example, it could be used to map where the oil plume was going and how it was spreading, and where the coastline is under threat. It could give a better understanding of the environmental impact and therefore could help people make better decisions about what to do.”

Work on the project is expected to be completed by 2015. Prof Lane said the robot will be around a third of the size of a car and around one metre tall.

Another member of the team, Tom Larkworthy, 30, who lives in Newington, said: “The hope is the robot will do a better job than a skilled operator, because people get tired. So it’s not just replacing a human, it’s improving what a human can do.”

Libor Král, of the European Commission, said: “The researchers have identified a real issue in an underwater environment where cutting-edge technology can help solve challenging problems.”