Welcome to the fourth entry in Zupt Autonomous Products and Technologies (ZAPT) blog series: Stories From Our Engineers.
As a technology company, our engineers have combined their knowledge from mechanical, navigation, localization, perception, and electrical engineering fields to build our first fully autonomous product, a robotic commercial lawnmower known as Nomad. During this series, several of our lead engineers will share their take on how they played a role in designing Nomad, what makes it unique to them, and the future they see. The next engineer we want you to meet is Josh, our Mechanical Engineer responsible for Nomad’s power and electrical components.
Pictured: Josh (Right) and Gio (Left)
What He Brings
Josh grew up surrounded by engineers, so when faced with the decision of his path, there was no question but to pursue it as well. Josh studied many different engineering, physics, and science subjects, emphasizing engineering disciplines such as coding, electronics, dynamics, and statics. By chance, he took a robotics elective during his education, which sparked his passion for working on autonomous robotic systems. In this class, he built a robot responsible for balancing itself, navigating its environment, and going from one point to another. He has applied this background to a much larger real-world application working on Nomad. He says, “It is exciting to take a lump of metal, and you bring it to life by energizing the system.” He says this because a robot would be nothing without the wires.
What He Does
Josh is mainly responsible for the power and electrical components of Nomad. This responsibility includes running and organizing the wiring and choosing connectors and housings for the electrical components that will have to survive in this hostile space. With Nomad being an autonomous machine, there are a lot of electrical components that need to function correctly. Josh says, "There's no template we can derive our product from." He says this because a robotic lawnmower of this size, with this capability, has never been built before. While working on Nomad, you know two things: what it has and what it needs. "It's our responsibility to connect those two variables in the most efficient way possible, and how we do that is unique at every step.”
Currently, the project Josh is working on is finding the best way to house the PCBs that run the legs of Nomad and how to connect those PCBs to other components on Nomad. He says, "It sounds simple enough, but given Nomad is so unique, you can't exactly pick up a "leg hydraulics PCB board enclosure" from Amazon." The decisions made require much thought, including enclosure placement, conductor diameter, conductor length, the current consumption of each component, what connectors to use, what bulkheads to use, the ingress protection of each component, and more. Josh says, "Almost 40 conductors are going into a 7"x4" box that leads out to a half dozen other components, so I must be careful and deliberate with every decision. Even something as simple as the size of the enclosure requires a lot of foresight and planning."
What He Likes
To Josh, the most exciting factor of Nomad is that it thinks for itself. He says, "It's a piece of metal that can think and make decisions based on what influence we give it." Nomad started from scratch and went from an empty 3D CAD workspace to a lawnmower that drives itself in a year.
Also, Nomad’s positioning capabilities that allow it to operate fully autonomously have significant value in other applications. For example, Nomad can navigate under trees using a localization and perception sensor suite we have used for over 15 years subsea in the Energy sector. He says, "while there are other autonomous mowers out there, ours can determine its position without direct GNSS data."
What He Sees
Josh is very interested in watching the adoption of Nomad and how commercial users will trust it to do the intended job. He wants to know that customers will feel confident Nomad will accomplish what it is meant to do: mow grass efficiently. "Being at the forefront of this kind of technology and project, you start from scratch and learn." There is no road map to successfully making a fully autonomous, commercial, robotic lawnmower. He says, "You choose the best way, you are the one to fail, and you learn how to make things better. That's exciting."
Next time, our Stories From Our Engineers blog will feature Dennis, our Electrical Engineer responsible for bringing the systems up and preparing them for field operations.