With sophisticated dexterity, Reach Robotics’ grippers and manipulator arms are enabling previously impossible repairs, inspections and retrievals in conditions too dangerous for humans – deep underwater, in nuclear power plants and, potentially, outer space.
When i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Maureen Murphy met Blueprint Lab founders Mark Sproule and Paul Phillips in 2017, their company was literally two men and a dog surrounded by metalwork, in a space no bigger than a backyard shed.
Today, under the new moniker Reach Robotics, the business occupies a 500 square metre Sydney manufacturing plant, employs 50 people, sells into 25 countries and counts the US Navy among its 120-plus end users.
Now leaders in their field, Reach Robotics designs and manufactures small-scale robotic arms, or ‘grippers’ for use in hostile underwater environments, and in missions too dangerous for humans – icy waters, deep sea, and even nuclear power plants.
Engineers by trade, Sproule and Phillips set out in 2016 to make the world’s smallest, most dextrous underwater robotic arm, after an associate Richard Rickett could find nothing on the market to meet his needs. Working in the oil and gas industry, he was seeking a lightweight remotely controlled gripper which could be attached to a small sea drone for not only inspecting subsea equipment but retrieving objects, conducting maintenance and repairs.
Stretching a $25,000 NSW Government Minimum Viable Product (MVP) grant over many months, the pair got to work, creating their prototype 0.4 kilogram Grabber which later turned into a 1.2 kilogram Alpha robotic arm.
Murphy, herself with a background in satellite communications and therefore familiar with unconventional territory, could see the significant value proposition of their product immediately.
“Deep underwater is just as foreign an environment as outer space so I could appreciate the operational challenges that presents,” she says. “Also, it didn’t hurt that I was diver, so I understood the difficulty and danger of working underwater.”
Sproule and Phillips, she says, had created an entirely new class of product. Lightweight and about a third of the size of a human arm, the Alpha robotic arm could be transported across long distances on small craft quickly and at low cost. “This smaller unit could do fine detailed work that was previously impossible,” she says. “The dexterity is now as good as using your thumb and forefinger to pick something up. It’s very sensitive.”
Sproule says the company’s point of difference initially was capability within a miniaturised scale. “Before this there was nothing small enough or light enough to fit on inspection-class remotely operated vehicles or ‘drones of the seas,’ used by industry.”
But, he says, the pair had no grand expectations when they started. “The aim was to develop technology that did not exist in the market. And it was it was not necessarily to be relatively successful and develop a company of 50 people. It was driven by our interest in the technology and the concept of building a business.”
Critical in the scaling-up of their business was a $739,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant, overseen by Murphy, awarded as part of the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme and matched by private investment.
“While $25,000 can go quite far in developing business, going from that to $1.5 million was huge,” says Sproule. “It enabled us to scale-up by employing full time staff in both research and development including mechanical, electrical, software and production engineers and people with business and commercial skills.”
Reach Robotics now hosts a suite of products including the original Alpha robotic arm and a 9.5 kilogram Bravo model, both designed to operate at depths as low as 450 metres.
Because they are easily transportable and can operate at depth, the technology’s application is wide and varied. They can be used, for example, to repair and maintain subsea pipelines and infrastructure for the renewable energy industry, collect marine specimens, retrieve explosives, or even people.
In Canada, the Reach Alpha was deployed by the Mounted Police Force to retrieve the body of a man who, in a white-out, had driven his tractor onto an ice-shelf and plunged 160 metres to his death under an ice-sheet.
“They sent a robotic drone down under the sea and used our manipulators to firstly open the tractor door and then to grab the victim and retrieve the body,” Sproule says. “And while capability did already exist, it previously required much larger equipment not easily transportable to remote locations and would have cost hundreds and thousands of dollars to do so.”
Today Reach Robotic clients include the manufacturers of the remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) on which their robotic arms are attached, offshore industries, and universities. Among the end users are defence forces, police and emergency services, aquaculture operators, marine scientists and the nuclear power industry.
“It can be used in any number of operations, but it is a particularly attractive for operations where human safety is at risk,” says Sproule.
Template for business
While the Accelerating Commercialisation funding has enabled this technological and business advancement, Sproule says the process was worth more than money.
Applying for the grant required them to demonstrate an understanding of the market and articulate a commercialisation strategy, and this built their faith in the business, he says.
“Putting our application in writing not only helped us execute our plan but gave a lot of confidence in the business model itself,” he says. “Our internal belief was boosted through that process.”
Murphy says that by guiding start-ups through this process “by asking the right questions”, facilitators help start-ups to focus on market opportunity, identify risks and clearly articulate their value proposition. And this not only leads to a strong grant application, but helps structure people’s thinking about the right direction for their business.
Sproule says structure of the grant allocation itself, aligning payments with set commercial milestones around key dates, was so effective it now serves a template for how Reach Robotics conducts its business.
“Having very clear milestones and deliverables that the whole team can see means that everyone’s pushing towards the same shared objectives and goals, and the communication of the company’s vision is clear,” he says.
The company is also applying its technology to the high-risk land-based environment is “a much more competitive market”, but one where Sproule says Reach Robotics’ technology could have a substantial role. Its advanced dexterity and intuitive control could have a significant impact in applications such as explosive disposal, confined spaces and environments with high radiation.
Beyond that, the company is also looking up – undertaking promising analysis around what it would take to adapt its technology for use in outer space. “There’s some interesting equivalence between space and subsea environments,” Sproule says. “Neutral buoyancy is one of them and the communication delay is another, where you’re working in an environment that’s dynamic and changing, but your video feed and control is delayed through cables and satellite connections.”
Sproule says the technology could be used in space to assist astronauts with experiments at the International Space Station, retrieve diagnostics from satellites and even clean solar panels on Mars Rovers.
“There’s lots of lots of reasons you need arms,” he says.
For Murphy, the company’s foray into outer space is an entirely fitting given her professional background, and not surprising given her faith from the beginning in the “really smart, focussed and passionate” founders she first met in humble surrounds. “They’ve built some amazing technology and I’m really excited to see them going on to bigger and bigger successes,” she says.