NBN Co is Making Friends With Robots

NBN Co is Making Friends With Robots

Back in December, NBN Co announced that it was exploring potential use cases for the deployment of robots in special capacities across its network, particularly for maintenance jobs to help humans out (not to replace humans, thankfully). Now, NBN Co has announced that it’s taking things a step further with robots, or as the company refers to them, vine-bots.

In collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), the proof of concept in 2022 proved successful. Now, the university and the network provider will be working together under the recently-announced ‘ASTRID’ collaboration, which seeks to bring experts, students, and academics together to solve problems in the telecommunications sector.

While the proof of concept involved a wheeled robot slogging through a pipe, as pictured in the leading image of this article, the next phase of the study will be much more difficult. This time around, the pipes will be much smaller, and closer to the size of the pipes used to contain network cables by NBN Co in the field.

“Up until now, we have only ever worked with pipes around 150-250 mm in diameter. For the NBN project, we’ve had to reduce our working scale down to about 20 mm,” director of the UTS Robotics Institute Sarath Kodagoda said.

“Once you consider the cabling also takes up about half of the interior, which was another new consideration for us, the real challenge is how to work with what free space is available.”

20mm is obviously exceptionally small. That’s smaller than a $1 coin, and when you consider what robots would need to do in these spaces, including moving around and modifying cables, it seems like an exceptionally tough restriction to work with.

But the answer lies in soft robotics, according to NBN Co and UTS. ‘Soft’ robots are based on the movement of biological organisms, and the ones being tested by the two organisations, the vine-bots (nicknamed ‘TubeScout’ by the team), will be based on worms and vines, that can grow out and shorten within these spaces with soft exteriors.

These bots can also bend and deform in the pipes, squishing to meet the shape of the space that they are placed in, supposedly down to as small as 2mm. Here comes one now! In that pipe there.

nbn robots
Image: Oscar Colman/NBN Co

It’s expected that Vine-bots like TubeScout will be fitted with cameras to help technicians see what’s going on inside pipes without having to crack them open, or pull all the cables out.

I hope to see you deployed and in the field someday, young TubeScout. Bump me up to NBN 1000 while you’re checking out my internet’s wiring, would you?

Image: Oscar Colman/NBN Co

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