Cape Town - The budding robotics industry in South Africa is working to replace people with machines in the most dangerous industrial situations.
From detecting life in collapsed mines to inspecting pipelines and oil rigs, robots can now do the jobs humans once had to risk their lives to do.
Ryan Beech, managing director at Ryonic Robotics and a mechatronic engineer, is heading up a company locally producing robots.
It started off importing robots from overseas, but when Beech saw the demand for locally-produced robots, he put together his own development team.
“I assembled a team of electronic, mechanical, software and mechatronic engineers and we started to develop the robots from the ground up,” Beech said.
So far, Beech and his team have produced low-cost anti-poaching drones, cable-crawlers for confined space inspections in places like pipelines and mine shafts and on oil rigs, and Artificial Intelligence robots able to detect heat signatures and heartbeats in underground rescue missions.
Beech said strict health and safety regulations make way for robots to do the dangerous jobs that people shouldn't be doing.
“South Africa is very health and safety conscious, so we are not replacing jobs, we are actually just removing people out of dangerous situations, like a dangerous pipe or plant or mine,” he said.
The robots are remote control operated, to allow machines to go where humans fear to tread.
“We are making all our local industries a lot safer and there’s a cost saving element too. But we are also adding another dimension; we are giving clients much better data and reporting for them to do their engineering on their site.”
Using various sensors such as lasers and sonar, as well as cameras, the robots offer feedback on the terrain that they are sent to inspect.
“We can send it down a pipeline or a mine shaft to do 3D modelling or visual inspection, or test steel thickness.”
Projects in the works include a robotic arm, autonomous all-terrain vehicles and humanoid robots.
The team of engineers is currently working on a magnetic robot that sits on the side of ships and cleans the hull.
“It basically eats all the dirt that builds up on the side of a ship.
“You can get an 8 percent better fuel efficiency if the ship's hull is clean.”
While similar technology exists elsewhere in the world, Beech says there was nothing exactly like what he and his team are developing.
“We are aiming for German quality engineering but Chinese pricing.
“We are not trying to compete; we are trying to be the best. The exchange rate does work in our favour.”
The local robotics industry may be sluggish at the moment, but Beech believes there is big potential.
“In Africa we are behind the rest of the world in robotics, but we are hoping to change that.
“I think there is potential to grow, and we can turn it around and become an international player.”
The target markets should not only be America and Europe, because the need is ripe for robotics within Africa.
“There should be a very big demand for it if you think of the safety advantages, because we have a lot of big industries that are dangerous to work in, such as mining.
“Robots not only take people out of dangerous situations, but if something happens, you can send a robot to go and look for them.”
Beech referenced the collapse at Lily Mine in Barberton in early February, which left three workers trapped underground where they have still not been recovered.
“If they had deployed robotics immediately… .”
Beech plans to take his robots on an international roadshow next year, to begin breaking into the export market.
He hopes it will grow the robotics development industry and ultimately create jobs.
“Most robotics (in the country) are imports, we actually don’t have any competitors, it’s quite sad.
“We need to develop skills and products locally that we can sell to the rest of the world, and help make the country a better place for all.”