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On land and at sea

Prof. Simon Fabri explains how new robotics are taking the plunge at the University.

As children, we sometimes dreamt of having a car that can go underwater to explore the seabed. Beyond childhood, the idea is still valid. What if we had vehicles that could go underwater to explore caves and wrecks that no diver can reach?

The tasks required from underwater robots are also complex, including the ability to detect and repair faults on communications cables and pipelines vital to Malta’s further economic development

Actually, such vehicles already exist, but the University of Malta is exploring new waters in the field of robotics with an ambitious plan to develop underwater vehicles that are specifically adapted to explore Malta’s coastal waters and support various industries.

The Department of Systems and Control Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering is specifically focusing on the industrial demand for land-based robots.

The University already has a significant track record, at par with international research, in developing auto­nomous intelligent systems on land. These include robotic arms, used mainly on production lines, as well as mobile robots to transport objects.

“Our field of expertise has been in the development of artificial neuro networks inspired by the way neurons in the human brain communicate,” says Simon Fabri, head of department.

“These networks are not only designed to perform a specific task, like controlling a vehicle to move from one location to another, they also have artificial intelligence that enables them to adapt to changing conditions while delivering a consistent performance.

“An example of this would be a robot’s ability to maintain a constant speed despite carrying objects of different weights.”

The new underwater horizons the department is looking at are the result of cooperation between Maltese archaeologist Timmy Gambin, and Christopher Clark, an underwater robot expert from California State Polytechnic University and Princeton University.

The two researchers have been conducting underwater archaeology and research on ancient cisterns in Malta for the past six years.

“Essentially, Dr Clark wanted to know if there were any robotics experts at the University of Malta and so Dr Gambin introduced him to our department,” explains Prof. Fabri. “As a result, over the past few months, we have been able to use some of Dr Clark’s equipment while he’s been researching in Malta. We have also started to discuss ways in which we can collaborate.

“Our eventual aim is to develop Malta-constructed underwater robots to reach places divers can’t, for industrial purposes such as maintaining cables and pipelines on the Medi­ter­ranean, as well as for archaeological and recovery purposes.”

Developing underwater robots presents specific challenges due to the more complex environment with changing pressures and also a greater scope for movement when compared to being on land.

The tasks required from underwater robots are also complex, including the ability to detect and repair faults on communications cables and pipelines that are vital to Malta’s further economic development.

The department has already developed mobile robots that work as a team, autonomously of human intervention. This means that if a specific task is required, the robots decide among themselves which one is best placed to act.

Work has also been carried out on controlling machines from remote locations using internet connections and enhancing the ability of robots to understand the land environment around them using sensors and cameras – these detect obstacles and ensure the machine’s performance remains consistent. “Of course, one of the most important things for an industrial robot is maintaining performance. This means that if something goes wrong, the machine itself needs to understand that there is a problem, what that problem is, and what it needs to do in just a few seconds to maintain performance. These are problem-solving challenges humans face and resolve instinctively every day, but programming a machine to do such tasks is, of course, a considerable challenge,” says Prof. Fabri.

A lot of these advances have been possible thanks to funding that the department has received from the European Union, including €500,000 which was used to completely refurbish the department’s laboratory.

“In the past, resources were so scarce that we practically had to build everything from scratch,” says Prof. Fabri. “Thanks to EU funding, we have been able to buy state-of-the-art, off-the-shelf robots – this gives us with more time to focus on developing the software that controls them.

“Obviously, we would like to do more, and the move to developing underwater machines that have a practical industrial application is a significant development for us, but securing funds remains a crucial challenge.”

Spearheading a campaign to raise funds from corporate sponsors and private individuals is the main task of the University’s Research, Innovation and Development Trust.

Set up last year, RIDT is endeavouring to raise more finance from other sources to be invested in further world-leading research such as that being conducted Department of Systems and Control Engineering.

For more information about the RIDT, visit www.ridt.org.mt.

Prof. Simon Fabri is head of the Department of Systems and Control Engineering, University of Malta.

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