Interview with Jussi Aaltonen, WP1 leader (from Tampere University of Technology)

“Requirements and specifications are the easy part. The hardest is to design a robot complying them all.”

The UNEXMIN project is almost one year old. After a busy first year of work, UNEXMIN is on-schedule to deliver the first mechanical UX-1 prototype. Jussi Aaltonen, from TUT (Tampere University of Technology), leaders of WP1 – Robotic Functions Validations, talks about what has been done over the past year concerning his team’s work in UNEXMIN’s development scene.

 

Luís Lopes, LPRC: What is WP1 (Robotic Functions Validations) and what has been developed from it?
Jussi Aaltonen: The purpose of WP1 is to develop and validate a robotic platform, i.e. all mechanical and mechatronic structures, systems and components of UX-1 (the name of the robot). Also, low level (directional) control principles are developed and validated in this work package. WP1 has successfully established a robotic platform which fulfils all necessary requirements.

LL: How important is the work developed in WP1 for the future UX-1 robots?
JA: Work in WP1 is fundamental for the successful completion of the project. All later development stages rely on this work.

LL: The systems/subsystems that the robot will employ were defined in this WP. What can you tell about them? How crucial are they for the robot’s overall functionality?
JA: All systems are needed for the robot to achieve full functionality. However, survivability, i.e. the robot’s capability to return from its missions, is more heavily affected by some systems than others. It is, for example, possible to return with a broken multi-spectral camera, but losing a sonar may cause the robot to be lost.

LL: What kinds of tests were developed to test the hardware/software systems? How about the results obtained, were they positive?
JA: Tests are done as so-called hardware-in-the-loop (HWIL) tests in laboratory. In HWIL testing, computer simulations and real hardware components interact, making it possible to do laboratory testing more closely to real operating conditions. Components and systems have also been tested in the pool by using a plastic mock-up of UX-1. Tests have been successful, which, unfortunately, does not always mean positive results. But weaknesses were found and lessons learned.

LL: In what conditions was the prototype tested?
JA: Tests have been done in shallow depths (below 5 m) and moderate temperatures. Pressure testing at 60 bars (equivalent of 600 m depth) will start soon.

LL: The robot is designed considering stakeholders’ wants. How hard was it to define the requirements and specifications for the UX-1 robots?
JA: I have to say that requirements and specifications are the easy part. The hardest is to design a robot complying them all.

 

UNEXMIN meeting - visit TUT labs

Jussi Aaltonen explaining some robotics-specific topics.

WP1 is fundamental for the successful completion of the project.

There will probably be some heated discussions, but that is only a sign of people being passionate about their work.

LL: Being leader of such an important WP of the UNEXMIN project must be challenging. Has it worked out as you imagined? Do you feel that everything has been accomplished?
JA: Over this past year of cooperation, UNEXMIN teams from the various partners have gotten to know each other and each other’s ways of working. The possibilities to meet the others in person and to really collaborate in real life conditions, such as in workshops, have been a great benefit and a very important thing, bonding people from all around Europe together and working towards  a common goal. Of course there are always some challenges. The biggest challenge has been finding a common and efficient enough platform for information exchange.

LL: TUT will organise a UNEXMIN workshop in the beginning of February (2017) in Tampere, Finland. What can be expected to come out of this?
JA: This event will conclude the work of the first year in the UNEXMIN project. Most of the work packages have already started or about to start (exception goes to WP7: Demonstration/Pilots), and thus we will hear a lot about results and developments in this meeting. We will also hear about the plans for a couple of essential work packages starting right after the meeting. I expect that we will have a good and fruitful meeting with the same good spirit and warm atmosphere that we have always had. There will probably be some heated discussions, but that is only a sign of people being passionate about their work.

LL: You are a specialist in the robotics field. What possible impact do you think the UNEXMIN project will have on the robotics field?
JA: UX-1 [UNEXMIN robot design-prototypes] will have a very different structure and layout than what autonomous underwater vehicles usually have. This will most probably have some effects on the field of robotics and will open new doors to further miniaturised underwater robots – the future starts here. Also, the environment where UX-1 will operate is probably the most challenging after Mars and asteroid landers and that will also give tiger leaps in the field of robotics, developing new and better robotic systems.

LL: After one year, how do you feel the UNEXMIN project has progressed?
JA: We are roughly in the place where we should be according to our plans. Work has been harder than what was expected. On the other hand we learned a lot more, while we still have managed to keep in pace.

 

Do you have any specific questions you would like to have answered? Just write them in the comments!

Norbert Zajzon, UNEXMIN project coordinator, studying the geology of Ecton Mines

Interview with Norbert Zajzon, UNEXMIN Project Coordinator

“I feel it would be easier to perform the same task on the surface of the Moon or a planet like Mars.”

The UNEXMIN project began last February, six months ago. It is an EU-funded project from the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Norbert Zajzon, the UNEXMIN project coordinator, talks about the past, present and future for UNEXMIN.

Luís Lopes, LPRC: First things first – what is UNEXMIN?
Norbert Zajzon: UNEXMIN is the abbreviation of the ‘Underwater Explorer for Flooded Mines’ H2020 project, based on the topic ‘New sustainable exploration technologies and geomodels‘.

LL: Where does the idea for UNEXMIN come from? It seems to be a crazy one…
NZ: It is a quite an ambitious idea! Basically to support the raw materials’ needs of the EU, to gather valuable information from flooded mines without risking human lives, but it also can be used in different fields like archaeology, rescue or water pipe-line monitoring and so on. If I am correct, the first basic idea did come from Balázs Bodó (LPRC) a few years ago, which was further evolved and matured for the final submission of the project. In the beginning the idea seemed to be taken from a sci-fi movie!

LL: The main point of this project is to develop a multi-robotic system that can autonomously map flooded mines. How difficult it is to achieve this?
NZ: It is a very difficult task. Developing a non-contact robot, which is fully autonomous, in a very complex setting with lots of obstacles and mapping the environment and simultaneously gathering geochemical and mineralogical information underwater is very hard. I feel it would be easier to perform the same task on the surface of the Moon or a planet like Mars.

LL: How important is it to map the flooded mines in Europe?
NZ: In Europe there are about 30,000 closed mine sites, many of which are now flooded. It is important to map and know what is in our abandoned mines under the surface, mainly from the raw materials’ point of view, but also to document and safeguard cultural heritage or as a hazard study for buildings on the surface in the case of mine collapse.

LL: UNEXMIN has a total of 13 partners within its consortium. What areas of expertise are present in this project?
NZ: This is a truly multidisciplinary consortium with experts in geology-geochemistry, mineral exploration, oceanic research, mine engineering, mechanical engineering, automation, robotic development, autonomous system control, 3D geological software development and visualisation, experts in dissemination and networking, experts in founding and running enterprises. And even with this extensive list I feel I might have missed some important areas present in our consortium…

LL: What are the big challenges that the UNEXMIN consortium is facing/is going to face during the robotic platform development?
NZ: The three main challenges I personally feel are:

1) Energy consumption of the robot, as it will have to run on batteries and cannot use any outside energy sources.

2) The small size of the robot, as it will have to fit into medieval mine tunnels, which can be very small, and still carry all the necessary instrumentation.

3) Survive the pressure and the – sometimes – very aggressive mine waters and still perform the geological and mineralogical measurements in that environment.

UNEXMIN - Poster in international event in Brussels

Norbert Zajzon, UNEXMIN project coordinator, presenting the poster in Brussels

In the beginning the idea seemed to be taken from a sci-fi movie!

The first reliable look of UX-1 can be seen on next spring.

LL: What impacts can be expected from UNEXMIN?
NZ: UNEXMIN is a project that could have a lot of impact in the future, mainly at a European level, but also internationally. The three most important impacts I foresee are:

1) Pushing the EU to the forefront in sustainable minerals surveying and exploration technologies.

2) Increasing Europe’s capacity to evaluate its abandoned mines for their mineral potential.

3) Help to document and safeguard  Europe’s unique mining heritage.

Besides the main scope of the above impacts, UNEXMIN could also lead to the deploy of robotics technologies in new application domains, acquiring valuable geological information and allow technology transfer between robotic solutions and mineral industries, that will lead to further innovation in those areas.

LL: What are the next steps to be taken for the project development?
NZ: The next important steps are to further develop, simulate and test different conceptual models of the robot to be able to carefully choose about the basic robot design, and also specify what kind of scientific instruments can be incorporated and with what kinds of performance constraints.

LL: Who are the interested parties in this project? And who can benefit from the service that is going to be available in the future?
NZ: There are a lot of interested parties, the so called stakeholders, in this project. Overall, I can say that all individuals from the geology, minerals exploration and mining sector, the ICT/robotics community and even the general public interested in the thematics of this project are our main targets. I believe that the technology developed in UNEXMIN will benefit a whole range of future consumers: geology-related companies (mining, geological surveys or geoheritage sites), national authorities, universities and other companies in areas such as environment or industrial diving and even for tourist sites (e.g. caving).

LL: You were present in Brussels in an international event about raw materials (see picture above). How did it go?
NZ: It went very well, actually! Many people were interested about our project not only from Europe, but also from overseas, like Canada or Mexico. And UNEXMIN was invited to participate in further discussions and conferences in similar fields of research in the next year. We are starting to make a name for ourselves…

LL: When should we expect to see the first looks of UX-1?
NZ: The basic concept and the main conceptual sub-system plans should be ready in the beginning of 2017, so the first reliable look of UX-1 can be seen on next spring.

LL: And will it be a good looking robot or just an ugly scrap of metal and other things?
NZ: The most important point of the design is functionality and survivability. As it has to move underwater in an environment with a lot of obstacles like ropes and spikes the basic shape is already decided, which is spherical with as a smooth surface as possible. Of course it has to carry enormous amounts of light sources, lasers, cameras, different sensors and many thrusters on its surface, so the final look will be very interesting. The recent conceptual drawings are very exciting, so I think it will be a good looking robot, moreover when it will run with all the different lights and lasers on for its sensors – the look will be astonishing!

LL: Final question: Is it difficult to be the project coordinator of such a big EU project?
NZ: Yes, it is a difficult and tiring job, but at the same time it is a very good and joyful experience to be in the centre of a very interesting technology development with a great variety of scientist experts in different fields from different parts of Europe, from Finland to Portugal thru Spain, England, Slovenia and Hungary.