May 21, 2012      

AUTOMATICA & E&T – In a multi-billion dollar theme park industry, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a ride that stands out as one of the industry’s most controversial and complex rides ever attempted. What rollercoaster junkies may not know is that the unique passenger carrying technology that makes their favorite ride so thrilling was inspired by a stationary industrial robot.

Robocoaster Ltd. is the company behind the ride’s G2 robotic system and is one of the five finalists nominated for the Invention and Entrepreneurship in Robotics and Automation (IERA) Award for its ground-breaking contribution to the robotics industry. The award will be presented for the ninth time worldwide at AUTOMATICA 2012 by the two largest robotics organizations: the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and IEEE Robotics & Automation Society (IEEE-RAS). In a series of talks, the nominated finalists will present their innovative solutions, which are already in use on the market and prove successful commercialization of robotics science. A prestigious plaque and $2,000 prize will be awarded to the winner during the IERA Award Networking Dinner on May 23rd.

A thrilling journey:

In 2010, all eyes were on Universal Studios, Orlando, when they announced the opening of their Harry Potter Wizarding World, including the much anticipated rollercoaster ride: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

Responsible for the safe and uniquely dynamic experience is Robocoaster, an organization composed of steel fabricators, university researchers, and automotive and industrial robot manufacturers. It was through the visionary direction and industrial automation knowledge of Gino De Gol, Founder and Managing Director of the company, that the first industrial robotic arm was certified for use on a theme park ride in 2001. “Instead of having special-effect workshops building imitation robotics, why couldn’t we use real robots?” Gino De Gol, Founder and Managing Director of Robocoaster Ltd.

De Gol was first inspired to integrate industrial robotics with entertainment back in 1999 when he noticed the European arm of the industrial sector seemed to have better insight into the requirements of the amusement rides than the amusement industry itself. During the early 1990s, the industrial sector was pioneering an abundance of innovative new safety systems, while the stagnant amusement industry seemed reluctant to trial new technologies.

“My premise was, why couldn’t you use robots?” says De Gol, “Instead of having special-effect workshops building imitation robotics, why couldn’t we use real robots?”

De Gol consequently quit his automotive engineering career with KUKA, previously Rolls-Royce, to pioneer the integration of robotics and amusements. Keen to disprove his doubters, De Gol produced the first generation of his robotic arm in 2001 with partner KUKA robotics. Dubbed the G1, the comparatively diminutive attraction was essentially a KUKA industrial robotic arm bolted to the floor and with passengers on one end.

When designing the first version of Robocoaster, De Gol used standard manufacturing robots as inspiration, factoring in higher safety levels as required of amusement park passenger carrying devices. The end result, however, was far from economic. The proposed robot would have weighed as much as a tank, with extremely poor performance levels. Early versions were stopped mid-manufacture so the tools and aspects of the design could be altered, eventually producing a final model in 2001.

Universal’s interest in their technology, at the time deployed on a small scale in shopping centers, was a real game-changer for Robocoaster. The previous G1 system allowed ride operators to integrate show systems such as media and AV into the motion envelope, provided no collisions occurred within the range of the arm. But Universal requested a robotic arm with four degrees of movement, mounted on a moving track, with a control system that would allow the robot to navigate passengers safely around obstructions and other motion-control systems.

This was a new challenge for Robocoaster as amusement rides are generally synchronized with show systems such as AV and CGI, meaning their processes are managed in linear-time measurements such as frames per second. Industrial machines, by contrast, are motion-based on linear, circle or point-to-point motion patterns. This meant the automation for the ride had to be adapted so that the ride was not only time-based, but also motion-based.

De Gol’s innovations in safety, payload, and controller technology paid off: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was unveiled in June 2010 to international acclaim. To date, Robocoaster has a perfect operational safety record and has now carried a combined estimated 35 million passengers. De Gol expects the demand for robot ride systems to double in the next 10 years.

A robot future:

Robocoaster is currently working on the G3, a high-speed version of the G2 robotic system in use on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride in Orlando. The new version, ready by 2014, will be a thrill ride running at 30km/h, improving on the G2’s 7.2km/h.

De Gol believes that the future of theme park rides lies in a new generation of robotics. Riding in automatically-guided vehicles (AGV) would provide each passenger with a unique entertainment experience, as the robots would be reactive. Instead of having one frontal wheel, or two wheels steering, four traction wheels would be integrated at the corner of each vehicle and kinematically mapped together. This would allow the AGVs to navigate safely at high speeds, simulating a variety of effects such as slides and skids.

“Vehicles could work together in platoons, with a combination of ground vehicles and drones interacting and acting out role plays with the passengers inside,” says De Gol. “The whole system is also completely trackless, giving a wider creative scope. I think that AGVs will eventually have more of an impact on the amusement industry than robotics already has.”

Future advancements will also be driven by the film industry and special effects. “Ultra-high-definition, CGI and 360° immersive experiences have already become staple in the industry,” says Mark Woodbury, President of Universal Creative. “What people see on film has become the standard for what they expect in all their experiences, whatever their entertainment forum.”