A small company from Christchurch, New Zealand, is taking the non-destructive inspection services industry by storm with its state-of-the-art mobile climbing robots, and the innovative new technology is attracting interest across the manufacturing sector, as well as among technology investors.

Invert Robotics’s patented climbing robots are installed with high-definition cameras and sensor technology that allow for equipment to be assessed for maintenance and preventative analysis on a remote basis. The robots enable precise and accurate remote inspection of surfaces, even those made from non-ferromagnetic materials such as stainless steel, carbonfibre, aluminium and glass. Inspectors are fed real-time video during the inspection, enabling immediate and highly accurate analysis.

“Unlike other inspection methods using dyes, drones and optical or laser devices, Invert Robotics’s technology provides 360-degree diagnostics and does so in up to half the time of traditional inspections,” says Invert’s Managing Director Neil Fletcher.

The robots are already being used by the major Australian and New Zealand dairy companies and co-operatives such as Fonterra, Synlait and Murray Goulburn, as well as a number of global brands throughout the food & beverage manufacturing industry in Europe and Asia, such as FrieslandCampina and Heineken.

However, Invert’s technology is also attracting interest across other manufacturing sectors. The aviation industry is about to benefit from the technology, where using robots in the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector presents another huge potential for growth for Invert. The remote-controlled robots use the suction mechanism to adhere to and traverse a range of aircraft surfaces, even when the planes are wet or require an upside-down inspection.

Installed with high-definition cameras and sensor technology, Invert’s robots can assess the surfaces of equipment for defects such as pits and cracks, whilst also recording the location and size of these defects. Inspectors are fed real-time video during the inspection and are able to identify and classify defects from a safe distance outside the vessel. Additionally, maintenance staff can see defects and other issues in real time, allowing repair assessment like never before. Initial results are instantaneous and a full assessment report is provided within 72 hours.

The Invert mobile robot records and transmits video images to a ground-based screen for real-time analysis by line-maintenance staff, enabling efficient visual inspections (GVI and DVI) on the tarmac or in the hangar. Images can be used for more detailed repair assessments and as a record of ‘current state’ for future comparison purposes. Rapid set-up and efficient inspection can reduce checks for operational damage from hours to minutes, while eliminating the risks of staff working at height.

Moreover, the technology will soon include ultra-sound and thermographic testing, allowing many labour-intensive and tedious maintenance inspection processes to be performed. This frees up skilled aircraft engineers to attend to more complex tasks and reduces the time and cost of aircraft maintenance.

“This shows how we’ve evolved to deliver tools and technologies for difficult-to-access areas, quickly and safely,” says Fletcher. “The opportunity to go from inside concave surfaces to outside convex surfaces brought the aviation industry into clear focus as a significant market for us.”

Aircraft maintenance group SR Technics, based in Zurich, Switzerland, is the first MRO company to use Invert’s technology, in a programme that has significant potential to change the nature of many aircraft maintenance and inspection processes.

“SR Technics is constantly looking for ways to improve the services and reduce the costs to our customers in this highly competitive industry,” said SR Technics CEO Jeremy Remacha. “Time savings mean our customers have their aircraft back in service sooner, and for airlines that is a huge benefit. Being able to record the state of an aircraft proves the need for and quality of our work, and allows more accurate scheduling of required maintenance. We are excited to be part of this innovation that we believe will have a significant effect in our industry.”

Invert is also looking at potential opportunities in the chemical industry, in addition to further work with energy, oil and gas companies.

Practical technology attracting interest

Invert began as a spin-out from the New Zealand University of Canterbury’s School of Engineering, and has rapidly emerged as an industry ‘disruptor’, changing the way crack and defect inspections can be conducted. The company was quick to attracted client interest within the New Zealand dairy market, and now Invert works for six of the top eight dairy companies in the world. Invert’s technology is now sought out by major consumer and industry brands throughout Australasia, Europe and Asia.

Given the practical nature of the technology presented by the company, it originally attracted initial investments totalling NZ$1m in a crowdfunding campaign through the Sydney-based platform Equitise. More recently a further NZ$6.4m was raised from a limited private investor round. Australia-based shareholders now include the former CEO of Macquarie Group Ltd, Allan Moss, and Inception Fiduciary Pty Ltd. These investments add to the considerable funding received from the New Zealand government and private venture capital sources soon after the company was founded by James Robertson, now its Chief Technical Officer.

Since 2015-16, the company has experienced exponential growth; for the 2018-19 financial year, its revenue is expected to further quadruple. A significant contribution is expected to come from its European operations – home of some of the behemoths of the dairy processing and food & beverage manufacturing industries. New offices in Germany and Denmark will soon join its European presence in the Netherlands.

A major driver of the company’s success is that Invert’s mobile climbing robots provide an industrial inspection service with unprecedented levels of safety, accuracy and speed. With the use of high-definition cameras and other sensor technology, the robots can detect cracks, defects and malfunctioning components that might be missed by the human eye. Moreover, Invert’s mobile climbing robots use advanced sliding suction cup technology, enabling robotic inspection of non-ferromagnetic surfaces for the first time.

In addition, the remotely operated robots eliminate many of the health and safety risks associated with traditional inspection methods. Operators and inspectors remain safely on the ground outside of any confined spaces at all times.

Invert’s service is offered independent of any repair work. This is an important factor because it allows clients to determine the method and urgency of repairs, while also offering to manage third-party repair contractors as the client chooses. The need for manufacturing companies to meet their clients’ expectations is another reason for the popularity of using mobile robotic technology.

“The accuracy, efficiency and the value-adding environmental and safety benefits of robotic technology makes it an obvious choice as global consumer demand for product safety, brand integrity and transparency grows,” Fletcher explains.