“5G network multiplies possibilities of develope robotic and stand-alone solutions in the future”


Source: Orange – By Orange  ·

19 December, 2022

A small device takes flight, inspects a power line several meters above the ground and sends the details hundreds of kilometers away. On the ground, an autonomous robot takes a look at the electrical substation and confirms that everything is in order.

The scene, which a few years ago would have seemed taken from a science fiction movie, is real. It is part of a pilot project to test autonomous technologies and communications through 5G networks in which Orange, Red Eléctrica de España and Arbórea Intellbird have participated. The objective was to test the possibilities offered by having real-time data communication via 5G broadband in aircraft and robots with the aim of reducing response time in cases of accidents and improving the efficiency of industrial inspection tasks at the same time. that risks are reduced.

“And it has been a success,” says Carlos Bernabéu, CEO of Arbórea Intellbird, a company integrated into the Science Park of the University of Salamanca. He has developed all his technology and has managed to place himself at the forefront of innovation in autonomous systems. Hand in hand with him, we review the history of this small company and the challenges posed by a future marked by artificial intelligence and 5G technologies.


– Lets start by the beginning. What is the origin of Arboreal Intellbird?

Arbórea was originally a company dedicated to wildlife management that provided services to public administrations. In 2008, while I was working on an invasive bird management program in Ávila, specifically domestic pigeons, the need arose to act in some urban pigeon-houses in protected historic buildings, in which it was not possible to intervene. It occurred to me that we could use a remotely manned system to deliver grain with a contraceptive to those points.

But of course, it was 2008 and there was nothing similar to a drone for civilian use like the ones we know today. Together with some colleagues from the air force, experts in these technologies, who helped me, I got to work. In 2009 we flew our first Arachnocóptero, a multirotor with a titanium and carbon fiber chassis. When we started doing the first tests, I realized that the potential was enormous.

– And how do you end up redirecting your business to autonomous technologies for industrial uses?

Shortly after the first tests, we were contacted from the wind sector to test the use of drones in the inspection of wind turbine blades. We did a business analysis and it seemed like an interesting opportunity. We manufactured a specific model, we did the tests with Gamesa, which were successful, and then they contacted us from Iberdrola to enter the company as a venture capitalist.

Already then we began to develop a platform for the analysis of wind turbine blades and we turned towards the inspection of electrical networks. We transformed the company to accommodate a number of large industry partners. And thus, little by little, we have been advancing, venture capital has left and other partners have entered. Right now we are probably the company that has the most advanced technology in terms of digital inspection of large energy infrastructures.

– And they are still a small company.

Arbórea Intellbird as such was born in 2012, integrated into the Science Park of the University of Salamanca, where I had previously worked as a freelancer. Although we are still a small company, our 17 employees are highly technical. We manufacture all of our drones and robots and develop all of the software platforms and their applications. It’s all done by us, from parts design and manufacturing to worldwide customer service.

For example, our clients in the wind energy sector have all their blades in the form of digital twins that have a risk ranking to find out what is worse and what fixes need to be prioritized. This predictive maintenance saves them millions because they are no longer inspecting in the field, but rather on digital twins that we create from the field with our robotic systems.

– The multirotor drone model used in the pilot with Orange, the Arachnocóptero, is inspired by maple seeds. Why?

The Arachnocopter has a bunch of patents. One of them is related to the efficiency of the combination between rotors and propellers. To develop it we were inspired by the seeds of the maple. These have a wing of different designs, some are short and others are long, with a lot of surface area. This means that when they fall to the ground, those with a large wing stay flying longer. This is interesting for the tree, because it allows some of its seeds to stay close and others to travel far. A single maple can end up creating a forest.

– Could you share any other examples of biomimetic technology?

We have another patent inspired by a picturesque animal from Madagascar, a nocturnal lemur called aye-aye. He has a very long nail on a finger much longer than the others. He searches for dead trees and taps the trunks with his fingernail, generating a repetitive cadence at full speed. His ear is adapted to the frequency of the vibration of the wood. All this helps him to know where there are hollow areas in the wood where borer beetle larvae live. When it detects changes in vibration, it bites into the wood and traps insects.

We apply this to a system installed in drones that allows us, using the tapping technique, to perform an ultrasound of a wind turbine blade, a ship’s hull or a gas tank. The drone rests on the structure and moves imitating the aye-aye to map possible structural defects.

Another patent that we have is based on the nocturnal movement of genets, capable of hunting by jumping from branch to branch in total darkness. Not because they are able to see, but because they remember precisely where the branches are. We have patented a system that allows us, from a digital twin, to generate automatic measurements without the need for our drones to see where they are. This greatly simplifies costs and data processing.

– Going back to the Arachnocopter, what can be its uses?

Our platforms are designed to work on infrastructures and, in particular, infrastructures in the energy sector. We have, for example, an Arachnocóptero system for inspecting power lines and another specifically designed for large vertical infrastructures, such as wind turbines or power plant chimneys. They are always tools designed for industrial inspection. In addition, we also have autonomous terrestrial robots for the inspection of all types of infrastructure.

– What was the pilot in which you participated with Orange and Red Eléctrica de España consisted of?

We have proposed an autonomous inspection scenario for which we have designed a robotic platform and modified some drones to do a complete scan of an electrical substation and inspect a power line. We have applied it first with Red Eléctrica and then with Iberdrola, always with Orange 5G coverage. The idea is to be able to generate a totally unattended inspection, on a scheduled basis or on demand.

The 5G network allows us to have a drone in flight sending high-resolution information in real time to any part of the world. This multiplies the possibilities of developing robotic and autonomous solutions in the future. In the pilot, reception was guaranteed at all times thanks to the Orange 5G network and the support of the Hispasat satellite network. Both have been very solid.

– And what have been the results?

We have shown that it is viable to have a network that allows us to receive high-value information in real time anywhere in the world in order to have a critical facility under control. This technology has clear real-world applications and is entirely feasible. The only limitation is the deployment of the network, since connectivity is not yet available in all areas of the territory where this type of infrastructure is usually present. But this is only a matter of time.

– What would you say is the importance of the new 5G networks for drones and robotics?

They are essential. We are at a dizzying point of global technological development. We are going to see its potential explode at all levels in the coming years. High-capacity, low-latency communications like 5G are essential to make this possible. All autonomous systems will work, both at the information management and coordination level, connected to the network. We will have mixed swarms of drones, robots and fixed Internet of Things (IoT) structures that will solve many scenarios of our daily lives without the need for human intervention.

Until now, autonomous technologies were intended to solve dangerous situations, with greater risk and with a greater probability of errors. But in the future, robots and drones will move to more everyday and simpler scenarios, from cleaning the windows of a skyscraper to checking a sewerage or an electrical system. All this requires a solid communications network with bandwidth and latency features that we did not have until now. 5G is essential, it is part of this scenario of great technological transformation.

– Although making forecasts is always difficult, is it something we will see in the near future?

All devices, mobile and fixed, forming complex swarms, have to be communicated through an efficient and solid communications system. The application of technology is immediate, we have demonstrated it with Orange.

When are we going to be able to do it on a large scale? When we have a sufficiently deployed network. With that network in place, robotic systems are available to integrate. Its applications are immediate.

If we look at the crystal ball, which is always complicated, I think that in 10 years we will be able to robotize many of the usual tasks of our day to day with simple autonomous systems. In a few years, we will see things that will leave behind the most daring science fiction movies, without a doubt.

Speaking specifically about the industry, it is clear that we need a more electrified world in which greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced. It is a necessity. In addition, energy has become a strategic issue. Europe’s energy independence requires efficiency, redesign and sustainability, elements for which technology and, above all, autonomous systems, are essential.