The development team, consisting of twelve computer scientists and students from the SIM Institute (Simulation, Systems Optimization and Robotics) at TU Darmstadt and coworkers of the robotics company taurob GmbH, sent their robot “Argonaut”, which they have been developing and training for two and a half years, to the third and final round of the ARGOS Challenge (Autonomous Robot for Gas and Oil Sites). The mineral oil and gas company TOTAL called for the development of an autonomous mobile remote inspection robot, which is able to inspect and monitor the area of a multistory oil and gas platform, in order to decrease the high risks for platform operators. In the middle of March, the Argonauts, who already had achieved the second place in the preliminary round of the ARGOS Challenge in 2016, had to prove again that they and their robot “Argonaut” are able to outperform the strong international competitors from Japan, France, Spain and Switzerland.
During the five-day final in Pau, near the Pyrenees in France each team has to complete an up to one-and-a-half hour lasting new mission every day on a training site. The Argonauts start optimistically but under high pressure, as the tasks are enormously complex. Only shortly before each mission, the teams receive the tasks, which their robot has to fulfill partly autonomously and partly teleoperated. Unexpected obstacles and diverse complications, which could occur on real platforms, are generally not announced in advance by the jury.
The requirements for the robots are of such high standards that many things can go wrong. With the help of their cameras and other high-tech sensors, the robots have to check manometers, level gauges and valve positions during their inspection rounds, while having to detect anomalies, heat sources, gas leaks, pump defects as well as platform alarms. Thereby, they need to react accordingly and inform a human operator, who monitors the mission from afar. This operator is supposed to be able to intervene anytime and to take over remote control via teleoperation, while subsequently, the robots must be able to complete the mission autonomously after such an intervention.
Bad weather? No problem!
Right on the very first day of the challenge, the weather conditions, namely heavy rain, impact the teams. While the Japanese team fears the wet tasks because their robot is not yet waterproof, the Argonauts are well prepared. Previously, they have already completed various training rounds during real and simulated rain on the outdoor area of the Computer Science Department in Darmstadt on slippery stairs, which were specifically built for this occasion, and therefore the Argonauts mastered this first mission with bravura.
The pebbly outdoor area, as well as an extraordinarily long wooden ramp, suddenly blocking the robot’s way, turn out to be highly challenging. “We didn’t expect that kind of obstacle”, states Dr. Stefan Kohlbrecher from the Argonauts. Thus, in this situation, just when the robot’s ability to operate autonomously has to be proven, the developers have to intervene and temporarily take over control remotely, before they put the Argonaut back into autonomous mode again in order to let it complete the mission on its own.
The third day is not getting easier, since the jury confronts the robots with unexpected incidents and various operational situations. Luckily, the Argonauts are acquainted with difficult tasks, after all, the German-Austrian team pragmatically used a toaster to simulate heat sources, for example. Furthermore, the Argonaut robot is safe when gas leaks occur, since it is the first autonomous inspection robot with an official ATEX- certificate, which means that it does not inflame an explosive atmosphere with its own electronics and can therefore be used in hostile environments. The certificate was one of the most important requirements which the jury posed for the robots.
Nerve-wracking missions await the Argonauts
During the mission, a misunderstanding occurs between the judging panel and the Argonauts, which leads to another ordeal for the team since they are confronted with an interruption that results in a deduction of points. Later on, a software problem appears that impairs the robot’s detection and reaction skills tremendously. After due consideration, the Argonauts risk a repetition of the mission in order to optimize their performance. This means that all the scored points from the first attempt were nullified. In the end, the risk the team has taken turns out to be worth it as the Argonaut is able to complete the second attempt with a significantly better result and in much faster time.
Exciting final mission
On the final day of the ARGOS Challenge, the excitement rises once again, since the competing teams are only told that the robots have to act in emergency situations. The robots’ behavior is examined when facing obstacles such as barrels, metal poles and holes as well as driving on the platform area under simulated heavy rain. This last day turns out to be one of the Argonaut’s most successful one.
Although the team drives back home optimistically and highly satisfied, they still have to wait for the results as the jury of the 500,000 Euro worth challenge will announce the winners only on May, 11th during a solemn award ceremony in Paris.
Regardless how the results will turn out, the Argonauts will continue with their research. In future, a robot with such complex skills can be used in various areas, for instance, in the chemical industry or for human rescue purposes. The computer scientists have big plans with their versatile Argonaut.
The development of the Argonaut has been supported by TOTAL S.A., the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within Eurostars (E!9448) and the State of Hesse within the LOEWE research cluster NICER.