The Future of Hazardous Unmanned Mobile Mapping

Last month (October 4th) GeoSLAM Ltd and Blackdog Robotics announced their partnership to provide unmanned mobile indoor & outdoor mapping solutions.  Now, in this new article for Lidar News, we explain what this new partnership means, what it can offer to a wide range of market sectors, and how unmanned mobile mapping is at the forefront of the surveying market.

A Trans-Atlantic Partnership
UK-based GeoSLAM is a market-leader in the design and manufacture of handheld indoor mapping systems. Using advanced geospatial Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) software, the firm’s technology enables 3D documentation of indoor or ‘enclosed’ environments without the need for GPS, used in a variety of ways including the construction, mining, forestry, security, and marine sectors.

The firm was founded in 2012 as a joint venture between CSIRO (Australia’s National Science Agency and the inventors of Wi-Fi) and 3D Laser Mapping (a leading global provider of 3D LIDAR solutions).

Renowned for its ZEB1 and ZEB-REVO handheld mobile indoor mapping systems, GeoSLAM has a rapidly expanding global network of over 40 distributors across 6 continents.

NPC had been building a reputation in the ‘robot-war’ world for some time due to their strong design pedigree and use of light and inexpensive parts. The company saw the potential for the creation of a resilient and dependable modular robot to assist in the areas of law enforcement, first responders and surveillance. Thus, Blackdog Robotics was born.

Flash forward to the fall of 2016; with GeoSLAM’s expanding presence into the U.S. market, it was only a matter of time before these two young, innovative companies crossed paths. It was immediately clear that the two products offered solutions with a large amount of overlap – whether it concerns mobility, ease-of-use, adaptability to varying environments, modularity – both GeoSLAM and Blackdog have them all.

The first public outing for the new partnership was at this year’s Intergeo Trade Fair in Germany, when Blackdog’s robot (affectionately named Ricky after a much-loved childhood black Labrador) made the journey across the Atlantic to make a guest appearance on GeoSLAM’s booth. With a rotating ZEB-REVO mounted onto the top, it was safe to say that Ricky attracted a huge amount of attention. But beyond the bright lights of trade shows, what does this new partnership have to offer?

Amalgamated Technology  
Since the launch of GeoSLAM’s ZEB-REVO (in the spring of 2016), customers, both existing and new have been delighted by the advances made on 2013’s ZEB1. Where the ZEB1 is solely handheld, the REVO’s built-in motor allows for autonomous rotation of the scanner head, releasing the unit from the grasp of the user and allowing remote operation for the first time. The existing mobility enjoyed by users of the ZEB1 (up and down stairs, inside caves, etc.) has been increased, allowing for mounting onto poles, backpacks, drones, surfaces, and even vehicles.

Vehicles, such as the BlackDog modular robotic platform. Developed with input from law enforcement personnel, the goal was to produce a reliable tool to gather data in hazardous environments, deploying a robot in place of a human. The data collected via the robot can be used to inform and support decision making in tactical incident management, reducing risk and improving outcomes. With a standard top speed of 3.8mph, the highly mobile robot can traverse a multitude of landscapes and environments, including sand, mud, debris, water and snow, and can operate in temperatures ranging from -40F to +150F. With the REVO’s datalogger (containing the unit’s battery & data storage) safely stowed inside the water and dust resistant casing of the robot, the two technologies operate in perfect tandem, often in very challenging conditions.

To cope with these challenges, both technologies need to be rugged. The Blackdog robot has been designed from the ground-up, for maximum modularity and ease of operation. It is capable of being disassembled and re-assembled using just 1 single hex key. Similarly, the REVO’s battery pack is easily replaced, again with the use of a hex key. Not that battery life is likely to be an issue – the REVO has a battery life of around 4 hours (continuous use), whereas the robot can operate for around 3 – plenty of time for even large areas of interest to be scanned.

Speaking of scanning, this is another area that GeoSLAM has improved upon. While the ZEB1 features a 40Hz speed scanner, the ZEB-REVO boasts an impressive 100Hz scanner, 2.5 times faster. Why is this important? With both units collecting 43,000 data point a second, the faster scan speed of the REVO allows for these data points to be spread more evenly across each scan line. The result? Coupled with the fixed rotation speed of the scanner head, the outcome is a more evenly-distributed cloud of points.


(Image credit: Opti-cal Survey Solutions (GeoSLAM UK distributor)

Left hand image showing ZEB1 data, the same façade on the right is scanned with a ZEB-REVO.

Not only is the data more even, but it is also more useful. With a more even spread of points, GeoSLAM’s world-leading SLAM algorithm can use more of the collected data in order to build up the resulting point cloud. There is a pleasing circularity in all of this – that a SLAM algorithm originally developed for the robotics industry is now being used in a mobile scanner mounted upon a robotic platform!

Multiple Applications
So, what is the potential for this collaboration? The adaptability of the REVO and the multi-mission configuration of the robot allow for a wide range of applications, including; terrorist/security incidents, law enforcement, and rescue/hostage situations.
All of this is made possible by the robot’s rugged hand held control unit, which features a line-of-sight (LOS) range greater than 500ft (150m), allowing the robot to be started, stopped and controlled from a safe distance. Such a distance is vital when scanning in hazardous environmental or risky situations, and removes the need for personnel to be put at risk.

With a bespoke modification for this robotic system, the REVO can also be initialized remotely. This allows for the robotic unit to be maneuvered to the area of interest at top speed, in time-critical situations where speed is of the essence. The ZEB-REVO can then be initialized at a safe distance using the handheld controller. Initialization is complete in under 1 minute, and scanning commences immediately. With a 360o vertical field of view, the scanner is able to collect a huge amount of environmental geospatial data in just a few short minutes, all whilst the robot is moving through the survey area. Once the survey is complete, the REVO scanner is stopped and the robot moved back to a safe distance.

Once returned, data is downloaded from the unit’s data logger and is processed on-site using GeoSLAM Desktop software, which requires no internet connection. Processing out in the field prevents time-loss and allows for almost immediate results – a 5 minute scan would take 5 minutes to process, for example.

The resulting data is a fully complete, registered point-cloud of the area of interest, allowing for specific and exact measurements of the area or feature of interest.

The Future of Unmanned Mobile Mapping?
In today’s uncertain world, where the threat of terrorist attack is becoming an almost everyday reality, security & police forces are increasingly demanding solutions which can react rapidly, intelligently and reliably, whilst simultaneously not putting their people at risk. With a trans-Atlantic partnership formed through mutual admiration and respect of design and technology, GeoSLAM and Blackdog Robotics believe that their partnership offers real-world solutions to these new and constantly-evolving threats. We look forward to working together in 2017 and beyond, facing whatever challenges the future holds.

The author of this article is Stuart Cadge, Sales & Marketing Co-ordinator at GeoSLAM. This article references the work of Blackdog robotics and refers to an article by GeoSLAM’s Chief Operating Officer Mark Reid (What is Geospatial SLAM?). The author takes responsibility for any errors or omissions contained within this piece.

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