The power of GNSS: paving the way to the new era of robotics
Whether they are fixed in place, are moving using wheels and ‘legs’, or even flying and swimming, robots are becoming increasingly diverse in the 21st century. Even though fixed robots have been the packhorses of the industry – especially in the manufacturing sector – it is the robots that can move that take the spotlight.
For as long as humanity dreamt of having the support of mechanised helpers, one key issue remained unresolved – how to ensure that robots interact with the rest of the world in a safe and effective manner. Unlike their static counterparts, moving robots must be able to travel around in dynamic and changing environments.
For indoor applications, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), as well as lasers or magnetic strips, are usually the navigation technologies of choice. One of the main reasons why GNSS is not used in such cases is because satellite signals are often either unable to either penetrate buildings, or if they do, the signals are scattered or reduced in strength. Yet, for outdoor uses, GNSS is the go-to technology for navigation with immense coverage and precision capabilities.
Currently, most robotic applications are restricted to indoor locations since such settings generally have fewer variable factors, can easily be mapped, and, therefore, are a lot more predictable to navigate. However, as robots get more advanced, they expand their capabilities for traversing various terrain and are become increasingly suitable for outdoor applications. With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine the emergence of an entirely new set of use cases where robots will be used in outdoor scenarios, dramatically reshaping industry needs and increasing their reliance on GNSS.
When combined with EGNOS and data from other constellations, Galileo has the potential to open up horizons for a wide range of industries, including the field of robots. This article aims to explore the application of GNSS-enabled robotics in the following section, as recent developments in industries such as agriculture, logistics, and construction suggest that the dream for a robotised future is starting to become a reality.
The robotics industry presents ever new products to automate previously tedious or time-consuming everyday tasks. For example, autonomous lawnmowers are now being used to mow gardens without the owner having to lift a finger. The downside of most current solutions is their reliance on the costly and cumbersome prior installation of an underground wired perimeter. Modern GNSS with its submeter level accuracy provides a highly viable alternative to such financially and technically restrictive navigation infrastructure, lowering the market entry barriers for these products.
GNSS also provides new levels of flexibility which enables the development of previously unimaginable applications. The market for robotic pets is one of such fields which could receive a huge boost from the integration of satellite navigation for a vast array of use cases. From looking after small children and notifying parents of their location, to supervising the elderly and alerting emergency medical services if necessary, robots with the ability to follow their owners could potentially become vital members of millions of families around the globe.
Agriculture & Forestry
Despite certain advancements, agriculture remains a very labour-intensive field struggling to reach higher efficiencies and reduce health risks to its workers. Additional pressure comes from the intensifying price competition and progressively stricter legislation requiring more commitment towards sustainability. With such a pressing need for innovation, important improvements have been made, including the increasing use of autonomous tractors in precision agriculture to optimise planting, harvesting, and crop spraying. Equipped with GNSS receiver, such as Septentrio’s RTK-based, smart antenna GNSS products, such machinery is capable of reliably and accurately performing repetitive tasks without unnecessarily exposing workers to strenuous work or chemicals.
The next step is to take this innovative approach even further and to automate the processes that traditionally demanded manual work. This includes harvesting soft food items such as pepper, which requires careful picking due to the danger of unwanted damage. Currently there are no viable alternatives to human labour, but a new generation of robots designed specifically for this challenging task is expected to emerge in the upcoming years. Other ambitions include the development of robots capable of monitoring livestock and ensuring the most favourable habitat conditions.
Logistics & Warehousing
There has been a sharp increase in the volume of trade over the last two decades, with the total worldwide value in USD of exports tripling between 2001 and 2019.1 Such an increase in trade has resulted in the need for more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solutions for the storing and transportation of goods. This is where robotised vehicles could become a much-needed solution. For example, automated GNSS-enabled robotic transportation platforms would be a valuable addition to lumber yards or other external loading areas.
Another logistics area suited for the integration of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is last-mile delivery, which is one of the major pain points of the entire logistics industry. It is not only usually the costliest block of the entire delivery chain but is also the most visible one to end customers. Hence, it is rather likely that in the very foreseeable future, multiple companies will be competing in this market for the creation of the ultimate AMR. Amongst such prototypes is Starship, which currently has an effective delivery range of six kilometres and has already managed to deliver tens of thousands of parcels to date. Naturally, other similar applications like food delivery and courier services are also expected to become focal points of this autonomous delivery trend.
Construction and Mining
While specialised heavy equipment and machinery for raw material extraction, transportation, and use in building activities have been extensively utilised for decades, GNSS-based solutions are starting to compliment companies such as Trimble who are entering the market with plug and play solutions that add additional functionality to already existing solutions. Namely, the employment of autonomous truck drills, bulldozers, and loaders could help to further enhance the efficiency, reliability, and safety of both mining and construction activities. Caterpillar has suggested that these solutions could eliminate human error, resulting in lower production downtime that could bring productivity improvements of up to as much as thirty percent.2
One real-life example of such beneficial transformations is the case of Pens Industries Sdn Bhd (PSDB) – a Singaporean quarry company that has been utilising drones across their limestone quarrying business for stockpile monitoring. In cooperation with the University Malaysia Perlis’ (UniMAP) Centre of Excellence for Unmanned Aerial Systems (COEUAS), the firm has developed a new measurement system of weighing lorries and estimating the volume of the loaded material. While the original manual measurement method was very expensive and inaccurate, the new approach utilises GNSS-powered drones equipped with specialised cameras and machine learning algorithms to achieve a 99% accuracy in a much more cost-effective way.3
Scientists predict an increase in the number of natural disasters around the world, with the forecast also including a rise in the average intensity of catastrophes.4 As such, the limited relief resources might prove to be insufficient for the new levels of global destruction, meaning they would hugely benefit from a technological reinforcement. With the help of specialised unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicle (UGVs), larger search areas all of a sudden could become feasible without the need for extra personnel.
Another emergency application of GNSS-enabled vehicles is the navigation of dangerous terrains like semi-collapsed buildings in search of the survivors. These robots would be able to conduct the search without endangering the rescue teams and they would be able to transmit the precise location once the targets have been found. Naturally, with relevant modifications, such robots could also supplement firefighting brigades and help to extinguish fire outbursts. One recent notable example was the use of robots during the fire of Notre Dame, where the Colossus robot assisted by entering dangerous sections of the cathedral and taming the fire from inside.
Another market that could greatly capitalise on the new generation of GNSS-enabled robots is the entertainment industry. Being more flexible and agile than ever, such robots are likely to be more heavily used in places like theme parks for a multitude of different applications. These would range from more operational duties like collecting customer information and providing helpful guidance to entertainment tasks, being responsible for staging shows and even performing stunts. In addition to providing customer service during open hours, robots can reinforce security teams and engage in surveillance when the sites are closed.
One vivid example of robotics being used in the entertainment industry is the development of the expansive robotic fleet for the planned (but delayed) Tokyo Olympics. Besides robotic mascots designed for visitors’ entertainment, numerous other robots have been developed for more hands-on uses. The Human Support Robot is one of them, and as the name suggests, it is expected to help people in a number of ways including guiding viewers to their seats before the game as well as fetching refreshments, souvenirs, and other items during the event. Without a doubt, such innovation should be able to not only significantly improve the customer experience but also attract a great deal of media exposure, both of which are likely to incentivise further adoption of this novel technological solution.
The recent advancements in the field of GNSS navigation, such as the expected Full Operational Capability of Galileo and the increase in the number of GNSS-powered applications, have enabled industries such as agriculture, construction, and logistics to transform their productivity, quality, and have even created new product segments. GNSS-enabled robots will solve some of the major pain points seen throughout various fields, and it may result in a shift in the robotics landscape towards the future, as imagined by science fiction writers of the 20th century.
 International Trade Statistics, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://www.trademap.org/tradestat/Product_SelProduct_TS.aspx?nvpm=1%7c%7c%7c%7c%7cTOTAL%7c%7c%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c2%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1>
 A robotics roadmap for Australia – 2018, Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, 2018, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://www.roboticvision.org/wp-content/uploads/Robotics-Roadmap_FULL-DOCUMENT.pdf>
 Using drones to monitor stockpile, New Straits Times, June 2020, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://www.nst.com.my/education/2020/06/603049/using-drones-monitor-stockpile>
 Global Increase in Climate-Related Disasters, Asian Development Bank, November 2015, viewed 3 August 2020, <https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/176899/ewp-466.pdf>