Although maritime systems are different from other types of robots, the demand for easier integration and use is the same. Middleware and connectivity products can help overcome legacy barriers to adoption and enable new use cases, according to Mission Robotics Inc. The Union City, Calif.-based company provides consulting and engineering services to help developers of underwater robots.
“At Mission Robotics, we want to make it easier for people to operate and connect systems so they can focus on their missions,” said Charles Cross, co-founder and chief technology officer at the Union City, Calif.-based company. Mission Robotics has used RTI Connext 6.1 from Real-Time Innovations Inc. to optimize communications and accelerate deployment and monitoring of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
“Our startup is about a year old, and our goal is to make innovation in the space more rapid,” Cross told Robotics 24/7. “We came out of OpenROV, and when others decided to take a consumer route, we went down a platform route. RTI Connext 6.1 is a big part of that, and I've used Connext for seven years.”
“At OpenROV, we had achieved the goal of making ROVs more widespread, to become the DJI of the ocean, and we sold a few thousand of them,” he recalled. “At the same time, Chinese companies crossed off the basic feature list and pushed prices down, and we started to see companies shift to commercial applications.”
Mission Robotics' founders decided to focus on an extensible data platform for developers rather than a single robot.
“There is no one configuration that can solve everything, so the wheel is reinvented at great expense,” Cross explained. “Unlike multirotor aerial drones, which can all capture footage and 3D models for 90% of use cases, marine use cases vary drastically. There are work-class ROVs versus observation ones.”
“We're just starting to see maturity—there has been a lot of progress in the past five to 10 years,” he added. “Component makers make low-cost thrusters, and we've built on open-source projects for flight firmware and control like ArduSub. However, the software stack has many legacy constraints, so you'd need an embedded systems team to build software to add a camera. There's no way to do that out of the box today.”
Making middleware to unify hardware
“We're also working on SDKs [software development kits] for vehicle and sensor developers. We want to build an 'app store for the ocean' and are developing a plug-in architecture for both the vehicle and the client side.”
“Our approach is to use publish-subscribe middleware, using DDS [Data Distribution Service] communication and ROS 2 [the Robot Operating System] to make different sensors plug and play for users or developers,” Cross said. “We want to improve ease of use and enable integrators to rapidly add devices without having to hack subpar systems or build them from scratch.”
“We want to create a drop-in replacement board for Blue Robotics ROVs that would create space and improve processing performance,” he said. “It's designed for ROVs, but is adaptable to AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles], ASVs [autonomous surface vehicles], and UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles].”
“The motherboard supports NVIDIA Jetson and STM332 MCU [microcontroller units] for real-time control and I/O,” said Cross. “For example, to upgrade a camera for low-light sensitivity, we provide the basic software for adding software and increasing performance. Software updates are all packaged.”
How much do marine robotics vendors rely on proprietary software?
“It is an issue in our space,” acknowledged Cross. “Others have closed ecosystems and are harder to modify. Some of the large working-class ROVs in oil and gas are multimillion-dollar robots that are deployed off large ships that have control centers with 30 screens. Each camera has a dedicated camera and a screen—there is no system that ties them all together. It's not even possible because there are no common standards or protocols.”
“We don't want lock-in; we want to provide flexibility and usability,” he said. “With one protocol and parallel APIs [application programming interfaces] with ROS and DDS, we have common data types, so any new camera is immediately compatible with recordings. We put wrappers around sonar and positioning systems so their data can go into a common bus. Right now, it's separate data links into separate computers.”
“The industry is changing from low-cost systems upwards,” Cross said. “We're still supporting people with proprietary pieces with end-to-end links. They can pass encrypted data to their own software, such as for an Arduino-based device on the vehicle, to a client app so that none of our software needs to be recompiled, and they don't have to deal with the vehicle layer.”
“But if you want data integrated for control or sensor fusion, our APIs are explicit and open,” he claimed. “Mission Robotics' technology allows users to use a single laptop to record all data, time-sychronized.”
RTI Connext can reduce barriers
With multiple cameras and vehicles, how important is robot connectivity?
“One of my previous roles was teleoperations, and at one company, we had four robots deployed all over the world,” Cross said. “By removing distance as a barrier with LTE, you can reduce risk and improve safety and pilot from anywhere in the world. With more autonomous systems, you need fewer people onboard a ship, reducing the overall cost and complexity.”
RTI Connext 6.1 supports and optimizes communications across highly variable networks. How has it helped Mission Robotics?
“Our software focuses on extensibility and scalability, supported by RTI Connext. The 6.1 release builds in WAN transport layer,” Cross said. “For the OceanX exploration project, there's a telepresence robot on the ship running our software and RTI Connext 6.1. Building links can be difficult, but within three hours, Eric Stackpole was able to get peer-to-peer networking working in real time.”
“RTI is taking care of these tough problems for reliability and quality of service,” he said. “Now we can get one-to-many applications running in a few weeks instead of a team working over months. We've had great feedback from marine companies that developed completely new electronics without a single day of downtime.”
“I believe there will be a massive change in how the entire industry operates,” he noted. “We're looking to Starlink [SpaceX's satellite service] to become broadly available, providing real-time, low-latency, high-bandwidth links.”
Could this have implications for other types of robots? “We would definitely like to open up what people can do,” replied Cross. “We've talked with warehouse robotics companies, and there are common themes. We've been solving the same problems over and over again in air, space, and sea—there's a convergence of technologies.”
“I look forward to the next five years. People are starting to push forward with niche applications enabled by more affordable technologies, such as in the acoustic sensing industry.”