Due to the advancements in computer-based intelligence and sensor technology, robots are evolving from stationary machines unaware of their environment into autonomous mobile platforms. This will not only help to relieve humans of potentially dangerous tasks but also optimize repetitive tasks in real-life environments from an economic point of view. For example, ANYbotics AG produces robots such as ANYmal C for applications with advanced mobility and autonomy requirements in challenging terrains.
It is not surprising that robotics applications are a booming market. The overall global smart robot market is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23%. Yet growth varies depending on the specific subsegment of the robot market. For instance, the market for autonomous delivery robots could register a CAGR of over 49.5% during the next five years, while the agricultural robots market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 22.8% in the same period.
The global civilian market for autonomous mobile robots including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned maritime vehicles (UMV) has already matured and is thus expected to grow somewhat slower but still at a quite attractive rate of 15.9% from 2019 to 2025. End users for such robots can be found in markets such as energy, process, logistics, transportation, collaborative manufacturing, agriculture, and mining.
ANYbotics is one developer targeting these markets and more with its four-legged ANYmal C robot. The company was founded in 2016 as a spin-off from ETH Zurich, and its autonomous legged robots solve customer problems in challenging environments so far only accessible to humans. ANYbotics has 45 employees and has successfully tested ANYmal in various applications such as the world’s first deployment on an offshore plant in the North Sea.
ANYmal C’s intelligent architecture
In the ANYmal C, the massive embedded computing performance for key tasks – situational awareness, motion control, and mission fulfillment – is delivered by three COM Express Computer-on-Modules from congatec.
What distinguishes our autonomous mobile robot from other smart robots is that it performs tasks with a high degree of autonomy in dynamic human environments, not just in highly defined settings such as automated warehouses or factory production cells. The robot reacts to moving or unexpected obstacles, as well as to changing environmental conditions such as lighting, rain, snow, etc.
Furthermore, ANYmal C can adopt a problem-solving behavior without external guidance or simply stop to avoid injury. Instead, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have to plan an alternative optimal route to the designated target location and successfully fulfill their mission.
Sensors for situational awareness
In order to safely and reliably navigate through industrial plants, autonomous robotic systems need a wide range of sensors to collect and interpret equipment and environmental data. The ultimate goal is for these robots to fulfill complex tasks just like skilled human workers. Only by using the most advanced mobility and autonomy in large-scale industrial plants and construction sites can they relieve their human co-workers from exposure to potentially hazardous environments and optimize the precision and reliability of data acquisition.
To obtain comprehensive situational awareness for safe operations, autonomous robots need to be packed with various sensors. This simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) must work even in complex and dynamic environments. In its ANYmal C robot, ANYbotics uses a wide range of sensors for navigation and path planning.
For obstacle detection and terrain information, the system is equipped with stereoscopic optical cameras on all sides to provide a 360-degree field of vision with depth information. A sophisticated lidar system provides additional environmental data for navigating in a range of up to 100 meters.
For teleoperation as well as a teach-in operation mode for dedicated pathways, ANYmal C is equipped with two wide-angle cameras at the front and rear to provide the operator with a clear view. For outdoor operation, ANYmal C can also be equipped with a receiver for GPS navigation.
But situational awareness for localization and mapping is only one part of the task to get the autonomous four-legged robot moving. Another highly important function is real-time control of the advanced locomotor system, which enables omnidirectional movement and allows ANYmal C to overcome up to 25-cm (9.84 in.) high steps, climb industrial stairs up to 45°, and crawl into spaces tighter than 50 cm (19.68 in.).
ANYmal C can carry custom payloads
Besides navigation and movement tasks, ANYmal C also needs to fulfill its mission, and it can be freely configured with a sensor payload of up to 10 kg (22 lb.) and act autonomously for two to three hours.
The first application-specific design of ANYmal C is optimized for inspection tasks in an around industrial plants and other demanding environments. For this, the robot is equipped with a pan-tilt inspection unit comprised of an optical zoom camera to read measurements from analog gauges and meters and check valves.
This is accompanied by a thermal camera to check machinery and other equipment for unwanted excess heat or thermal anomalies. For gas-leakage detection, ANYmal C is equipped with gas sensors, while an ultrasonic microphone for acoustic inspection helps identify machine anomalies at an early stage.
In order to execute all three tasks in parallel with the highest reliability and at full performance, ANYbotics has a modular design that is based on two Intel i7 hexa-core and one Intel i7 dual-core processors with virtualization to further separate the different subtasks on single cores. These processors provide the computing power for the advanced motion control, the real-time mapping and autonomous navigation, and the sophisticated onboard customer applications.
This flexible design makes it possible to balance the price and performance of each task, and serves as a basis for any future performance upgrades. All features are enclosed in a user-friendly, ruggedized, and fully water- and dustproof IP67 design. This groundbreaking design also qualifies the ANYmal C for many other tasks, including search and rescue (SAR), security controls, rescue after earth quakes, or simply parcel delivery.
Computer on modules
Cognatec’s COM Express Computer-on-Modules are popular for embedded system designs because they provide ready-to-use, easy-to-integrate, and standardized platforms that include all necessary drivers and firmware. These modules combine all key building blocks such as CPU, RAM, high-speed interfaces and often also the graphics unit in a single and validated package.
Another advantage is the fact that Computer-on-Modules of the same form factor and standard are scalable, both across processor generations and manufacturers. This gives OEMs full flexibility when scaling and upgrading their solutions with the latest processor technology even after several years.
The customer can concentrate all time and resources on designing the carrier board and making sure that all functions and interfaces exactly fit the application without having to take care of the complex processor design-in.
Although standardized COM Express modules are easily interchangeable, the services and quality provided by module vendors can differ significantly. OEMs should look for the optimum total cost of ownership (TCO). Besides the module price itself, there are many other aspects that play a role in this choice.
Firstly, design quality should be checked to ensure that the module offers high thermal, mechanical, and electrical resistance. Reliable embedded vendors can provide extensive test documentation to prove a compliant design.
Secondly, the modules should come with a comprehensive board support package for all required hardware-near software to simplify OS and software integration. The long-term availability of individual modules is another key factor to reduce the TCO in the long term.
Last but not least, the design service offered by the embedded vendor is an important factor. Even though Computer-on-Modules are application-ready components, and all the above features are part of the offering, the design and development requires close cooperation between vendor and OEM. This is where specialized distributors and technology partners come into play, providing comprehensive and individual design-in service and technical support to help OEMs to bring their products to market as quickly as possible.
The Swiss company Fabrimex Systems has been an authorized sales partner of congatec for seven years. Fabrimex offers all congatec products along with its technical expertise, as well as additional components, engineering services, and customized system-level products.
ANYbotics has given Fabrimex Systems and congatec high marks, saying, “The cooperation was excellent, reliable, and a lot of fun.” We have appreciated the local support and service provided by Fabrimex System, plus the congatec product portfolio including comprehensive software tools, technical documentation, and a broad line card offering a 10 to 15 year product lifecycle. There is a consistent upgrade path for Computer-on-Modules and single board computers for future designs and compatible upgrades.
About the authors
Péter Fankhauser is co-founder and CEO of ANYbotics, and Zeljko Loncaric is a marketing engineer at congatec.