Robot helper brings loads of potential
If you head over to the No. 36 Squadron headquarters building at RAAF Base Amberley, you might meet an unusual new member of the team, but she won’t stop and chat.
She’s a ‘loggie’ of few words and she’s most likely on an important mission with no time to waste.
SARAH (Supply Assistance Robot – Autonomous Hardware) is, in fact, an autonomous mobile robot.
Joining the team last October, she was acquired by Squadron Leader Evan Smith as phase one of an innovation to automate the manual movement of aircraft parts from the logistics section to the technician.
Moving parts and consumables around the squadron is critical to the operations at No. 36 Squadron but, to date, they’ve relied solely on people performing the task.
“I was interested in exploring whether there were ways to simplify or automate the task,” Squadron Leader Smith said.
“I wanted to free up the team’s time to focus on tasks that they as intelligent, trained, highly experienced people can do, and let a robot do the mindless manual handling tasks.”
Through his research, Squadron Leader Smith found there were a lot of high-readiness solutions already in use by companies including Volkswagen, Boeing, and Airbus. The Mobile Industrial Robot (MIR) specifically jumped out at him.
“It was easy to implement and relatively cheap,” he said.
At this stage Squadron Leader Smith reached out to the Plan Jericho team.
“Jericho supports people thinking outside the box to get their ideas implemented,” he said.
He drafted a staged proposal which laid out his vision for automated delivery of parts and equipment, phasing it from the simplest part of the problem to the end-state complete vision. Impressed with the innovation, Jericho offered to fund two thirds of phase one.
When SARAH arrived, the supplier (Konica Minolta) spent two weeks with the team configuring and customising the user interface to their requirements.
“We have enjoyed an exceptional relationship with Defence over many years and from this we know RAAF has a strong culture of innovation and transformation. We are proud to offer this solution which delivers tangible, measurable benefits,” Konica Minolta managing director and chairman David Cooke said.
Now she’s up and rolling, SARAH travels 850m a day on average, fulfilling 20 missions. She’s also reducing the risk of injury from lifting and pushing heavy parts as she can carry up to 200kg at a time without skipping a beat.
Logistics Officer Flight Lieutenant Melissa Moore was excited to work with SARAH when she joined No. 36 Squadron in January.
Studying for her masters in project management, Flight Lieutenant Moore said SARAH was highly relevant to her studies.
“There’s a big focus on how AI can assist in supply change management,” Flight Lieutenant Moore said.
“SARAH takes away the low-level tasking and provides us an extra body back in the section, so that’s been fantastic for me.
“The cost-benefit analysis shows us that we are reallocating higher value tasks back to our people.
“In fact our cost-benefit analysis has shown savings of more than $27,000 per year, plus the team are learning new transferable skills through working with AI.
“People are looking here and saying: If 36 are doing this, what can we do?”
An unexpected benefit was that SARAH had helped the team with social distancing.
“SARAH’s been working phenomenally which has helped us during this time when everyone is trying to keep away from each other. We’re meeting the intent of keeping people separated because we’ve got the robot to deliver things,” Flight Lieutenant Moore said.
Squadron Leader Smith was looking to phase two of the innovation which would require SARAH to go outside.
“The end-state vision is that the technician on the line in the middle of a job can reach into their technical manual, identify which part they need, push a button and have it brought out to them automatically without it passing through several people and processes,” he said.
Unfortunately, SARAH is not weatherproof and needs more sophisticated technology to navigate traffic and roads.
“SARAH demonstrates that you can solve this type of problem by using autonomous equipment but she doesn’t represent the end state,” Squadron Leader Smith said.
“We’re working with Jericho to look at what other technologies can solve other parts of the problem.”
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