Bomb Disposal Robot
The University of Greenwich joined forces with a Kent-based company on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to design and manufacture a bomb disposal robot for use by security forces, including the British Army.
NIC Instruments Limited is a mechanical engineering design and manufacturing company which has developed its products to take advantage of leading-edge mechanical engineering design and manufacturing technologies. Currently, its main product ranges are security search equipment and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) equipment.
This collaborative aim of this KTP was to create a lightweight, remote-operated vehicle, or robot, that can be controlled by a wireless device, and then develop a range of enhancements to the basic unit. The innovative robot, which can climb stairs and even open doors, will be used by soldiers on bomb disposal missions in countries such as Afghanistan.
Much lighter and more flexible than traditional bomb disposal units, the robot is easier for soldiers to carry and use when out in the field. It has cameras on board, which relay images back to the operator via the hand-held control, and includes a versatile gripper which can carry and manipulate delicate items. The robot also includes nuclear, biological and chemical weapons sensors. Measuring just 72cm by 35cm, the robot weighs 48 kilogrammes and can move at speeds of up to eight miles per hour.
NIC Instruments Ltd currently design, manufacture and market a wide range of mechanical instruments, serving the security search and EOD markets.
NIC sought to develop a range of new products, to service both its existing and new markets, based around a Lightweight Remote Operated Vehicle (LROV). This range of products is expected to include significant mechanical, electronic, instrumentation and software engineering elements. It is expected that IP protection will be sought for a range of the features of this product range. NIC will therefore be able to develop a sustainable future business based on this development.
The main challenge for NIC was that although it has significant expertise and facilities to undertake mechanical engineering design and manufacture, its expertise in electronic, instrumentation and software engineering is limited. This KTP provided a mutually beneficial route by which NIC could gain access to the necessary expertise in these areas within the required timescale.
The main role provided by Greenwich was to provide its expertise in electronic systems design and software engineering to the project. Dr Steve Woodhead, Reader in Computer Systems & Networks within the university's School of Engineering, said: "It's great to be able to employ our specialist knowledge to support a small manufacturing company in its next stage of development, as well as producing a vital security product."
Experts from the Department of Computer & Communications Engineering, based within the university’s School of Engineering, worked on the project alongside NIC Instruments Limited to help develop electronic power systems, including batteries, charging and power management; electronic engineering, including wireless and fibre optic communications systems and embedded microcomputer systems; instrumentation engineering, including sensor interfacing and specification; computer systems and software engineering, including operating systems, device drivers and human computer interfaces (HCI) and integrating sub-systems, based on the above, into larger overall systems, such as the LROV.
Impact and benefits
Key customers for the finished product are expected to include (do they now include?) the defence and security forces of several EU countries. On completion of the partnership, NIC Instruments predicted that its annual turnover would double within two to three years. Just four months after the product’s commercial launch, NIC is currently projecting an additional profit of £1.2m from the basic LROV range.
As an existing supplier to a range of defence forces, NIC have the opportunity to improve competiveness and increase sales to such customers through the development of the LROV product range, including ongoing service contracts and accessories. The knowledge transferred during the partnership has provided an opportunity for NIC to develop and continue to support the LROV product range, as well as providing the possibility of diversifying into other electro-mechanical products having a high added value. The production of the developed LROV provides an opportunity to significantly increase the utilisation level of the existing mechanical manufacturing plant within NIC. However, the final electronics of the basic LROV have many more capabilities than the electronics which were specified by NIC at the start of the partnership.
The partnership provides the continuing opportunity for the University of Greenwich to support NIC in developing expertise in their target areas, while NIC develop the new LROV product range. After the success of the initial partnership, a second KTP project has been commissioned, which will focus on the development of innovative control software to add ‘smart features’, to provide semi-automated and automated functionality.
Steve Wisbey, the organisation's Managing Director, said: "The partnership with the University of Greenwich has allowed us to expand our technology base considerably in a highly compressed timescale. We are now exploring ways of extending our partnership, as other security projects between us are already under way."