Small automated self-guided vehicles are now being used to quickly transport parts around the Volkswagen car assembly plant in Palmela near Lisbon, autonomously operating thanks to spin-offs from ESA Mars rover.
What earlier was done by factory workers on trolleys and forklifts is now done autonomously by the computer controlled automatic guided vehicles (AGV) developed by the Portuguese company Active Space Technologies.
“Our ActiveONE AGV is developed based on the expertise we gained from contracts with ESA for the design of mechanical space mission structures and the development of systems to test the locomotion sub-systems and motors for a rover to be used in surface and underground exploration on Mars in the European ExoMars mission,” said Active Space Technologies CEO Bruno Ramos de Carvalho.
The prototype AGV was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund through its Portugal 2020 program and developed with the auto maker Peugeot Citroen for the requirement definition in order to reach a product fulfilling automotive industry needs.
When presented to Volkswagen Autoeuropa, the automotive company immediately saw the opportunity to introduce it in their demanding Palmela logistics chain. Thirty ActiveONE AGVs were promptly introduced in the plant, where the integration model was successfully tried.
“Integration into the automotive industry and operation in its demanding assembly environment has helped us to factory-grade our AGV and its control system. We now have a very reliable product that can be easily used in many other similar industrial settings,” said Bruno.
Space robotics turned out to be the key
ActiveONE is an automated vehicle with magnetic navigation guidance, or location-based navigation guidance, to support logistics in industrial environments that require flexibility and very high production rates.
What differentiates ActiveONE from other AGVs already on the market is its innovative architecture and control system, where several elements learned from working on space structure and robots made the difference, in particular the central differential traction system.
This combined with three important key characteristics make the difference which attracts companies like Volkswagen: its very low height of only 19 cm, its handling of heavy loads up to 800 kg and its high operational speed.
These characteristics associated with the bi-directional movement and the 360 degree rotational capacity on its own axis allow it to navigate tunnelling under most industrial logistical structures, cutting on additional integration costs.
Its modular design also accommodates easy adaptation to more specific customer demands, reducing the need for drastic changes in manufacturing processes or infrastructures, allowing significant gains and quick integration in production processes.
The ActiveONE with its load capacity of 800kg has recently got a stronger sibling with a lifting capacity of up to 2500 kg and able to transport two Euro-pallets. The company also foresees a forklift AGV in their development plan.
ESA BIC start-up
Founded in 2004, the Active Space Technologies start-up was initially supported at ESA Business Incubation Centre in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. In 2006 the company decided to move their headquarters to Portugal, home country of the founders.
"We started in aerospace, but space is a small sector, both in Portugal and in Europe,” explained Bruno Ramos de Carvalho.
“It's in the transfer of space technology to terrestrial markets and applications that greater opportunities can be found, with a much higher potential for growth."
ESA’s Technology Transfer Broker in Portugal, Pedro Nunes Institute (IPN), also operating ESA Business Incubation Centre (ESA BIC) in Portugal, supported Active Space Technologies in the process of transferring space technology to terrestrial markets. ESA BIC Portugal and ESA BIC Noordwijk is part of the
"Active Space Technologies is a remarkable case of introducing disruptive space technology to exploit a non-space market opportunity, in this case the automotive industry," said Carlos Cerqueira, director of Innovation at IPN and coordinator of ESA BIC Portugal.
In July 2017, Active Space Technologies launched Active Space Automation, a spin-off subsidiary, to transfer to non-space business sectors the company's know-how from space programmes, and in particular from work on the ExoMars robotic` system. The subsidiary has already 16 employees and expects to reach more than €2million in revenue over the next two years.
“Spinning off this experience has opened up a whole new business opportunity for us,” said Bruno Ramos de Carvalho.
“We have already 32 ActiveONE AGVs operating every day in the Volkswagen AutoEuropa plant, proving its worth on the assembly line. In addition, we have placed two AGVs in SAS Automotive Systems' plant, also in Palmela, and 5 AGVs in Faurecia's factory at S. João da Madeira.
“With the bigger AGV, ActiveONE XL, commercially ready within the first quarter of 2019, we expect immense growth for our Active Space Automation subsidiary.”
Bruno concluded that, “This space spin-off is turning out to be a very successful entry into the fast growing industry 4.0 market.”
World's largest ecosystem for space-related entrepreneurship
The technology transfer partners and ESA Business Incubation Centres that supported Active Space Technologies – ESA BIC Noordwijk and IPN with their ESA BIC Portugal, are part of the wider network of 20 ESA BICs and 16 technology brokers throughput Europe.
The network is operated under ESA’s Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Programme Office as part of the ‘ESA space solutions’ network of Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs) and Technology Transfer Brokers offering complete access to all aspects of space-related innovation, technology and intellectual properties and is a gateway to ESA and European space research and developments.
The 20 ESA BICs in 17 European countries – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and UK – are forming the largest ecosystem in the world for space-related entrepreneurship. The 21th centre is soon to open in Northern Germany and more centres are already under preparation.
Over 650 start-ups have been fostered and another 160 new start-ups are taken in yearly at the ESA BICs to be supported under the two-years business development boosting programme.
Read more about: ActiveONE AGV on Active Space Automation, on ESA`s Technology Transfer and Business Incubation at www.esa.int/ttp and spin-off from Europe's space programmes at spacesolutions.esa.int.