TECH TRENDS: OUTER LIMITS31 Jan, 2005 By: Arnie Williams
Design for the deep sea and beyond
As the United States continues to deplete its land resources for oil, the search for this precious commodity has moved from shallow-water offshore platforms in places such as the Gulf of Mexico to deeper waters and more remote locations in inhospitable areas such as the frigid waters of the North Sea. The need for technology to replace a human presence in these often treacherous ocean climes was the genesis of Schilling Robotics (www.schilling.com).
The company, now based in Davis, California, got its start back in 1985 in response to the need for remotely controlled robotic arms to go onto a remotely operated vehicle for use in the offshore oil industry. These devices were used both in conjunction with divers for undersea operations and also used in places where divers couldn't go—such as for deep-sea drilling and rig maintenance in waters whose depth and pressure combine to deny human access.
From that beginning, Schilling Robotics has taken the lead in designing and manufacturing almost any kind of remotely controlled device for the deep ocean. "Years ago, we launched a program for universally applicable software and hardware building blocks for making remotely controlled machines," says CEO and co-founder Tyler Schilling. "The idea is that we and our customers would have a reusable fleet of machines already developed. Then we could focus on the applications of these machines."
In the early days of Schilling Robotics, designers worked in 2D using AutoCAD (www.autodesk.com). In 1998, the company added SolidWorks (www.solidworks.com) and designed in both 2D and 3D. "Someone would make a conscious decision about what required 2D or what required 3D," says Schilling. "But in 2004, we switched to completely doing all of our work in 3D and in SolidWorks."
For the 10 or so engineers in the company who design, it made sense to begin designing everything in 3D. Schilling notes that SolidWorks has made rapid advancements since the company first began using the product. The perceived difficulty gap between designing in 2D and 3D has basically disappeared, he says.
Small but PowerfulProducts designed for an undersea environment, such as those encountered in offshore drilling, have much in common with those developed by the aircraft industry—they need to be lightweight, compact and durable. Schilling Robotics prides itself on industry-leading expertise in creating tightly integrated mechanical, electronic and hydraulic devices (figure 1). In addition to designing and manufacturing all of the mechanics, electronics and hydraulics that go into their machines, Schilling also develops the software to control the devices remotely.
Figure 1. Remote-controlled hybrid devices, such as this module created in SolidWorks, need to be light but durable. Schilling Robotics designs and manufactures the device, including its hydraulics and electronics, and also develops the software that control such devices from remote locations.
A current project underway at the company focuses on creating some very large machines to carry out deep-sea oil-well workovers. "Once you've drilled a well, whether it's ocean- or land-based," explains Schilling, "the nature of the well alters as it ages. The shape of the reservoir is constantly changing. To make the well as productive as possible, it's necessary to go back down into the well bore to make adjustments. In a seawater well, it's important to have remote-control techniques for doing all of these procedures."
The ocean floor isn't the only environment Schilling Robotics is targeting, however. The company has designed remote-controlled devices for use at NASA facilities for training purposes. It has also designed and manufactured devices for use in the nuclear power industry, which has a strong safety need for light but durable remotely controlled devices to handle plant maintenance and other chores.
Exoskeletons for HumansAnother future project will be the very opposite of remote as far as humans are concerned, yet Schilling's expertise in hydraulics and integrated packaging makes it a good fit. Schilling Robotics is studying design improvements needed for the next iteration of the BLEEX exoskeleton. The first generation of the device, known as the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, was a concept proof carried out by a team led by Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, director of University of California Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory.
The BLEEX consists of a backpack-like frame and mechanical braces connected to a user's feet, legs and hips (figure 2). A person fitted with a BLEEX exoskeleton would be able to carry a load of 70lb or heavier that would feel as though it weighed only 5lb. The uses for such a device in emergency rescue operations are obvious.
Figure 2. The design for the next generation of the BLEEX Exoskeleton calls for a thigh assembly that will be part hydraulics, part structure and part electronics to give the wearer a more natural motion for stooping and bending. The exoskeleton allows users to bear heavy weights with ease—for example, making a 70lb load feel like 5lb.
Although the project is on hold for now, Schilling has already completed some design work in SolidWorks to address a number of areas. "We're working on improving the desired range of motion for the knees and hips," says Schilling. "We're also developing a very compact hydraulic actuator to be integrated into the thigh assembly that, within structural elements of the thigh, will contain hydraulic panels and bonding of titanium. It'll be a hybrid device that's part structure, part electronics, part manifold and so on."
Taking Remote Designs Where They're NeededConsidering the desire by the United States government to eliminate some of its dependence on foreign oil, you can be sure that Schilling Robotics will continue to work with this industry to design and develop devices for remote exploration and production in deeper oceanic climates. But when the company looks to the future, says Schilling, it's with a completely open mind.
"We want to help build a community of engineers who have knowledge and expertise in working with remote locations," he says. "We're looking at developing broad general applications of a variety of remote system engine modules. We see a growing need for remote control and we want to do whatever we can to encourage and promote the whole idea, whether it's drilling for oil at the bottom of the ocean or taking scientific measurements from thermal vents in the sea floor. Hardware and software modules can be used for that kind of work to help push its capabilities forward."
Arnie Williams, former editor-in-chief of Cadence magazine, is a freelance author specializing in the CAD industry. E-mail Arnie at email@example.com.