August 15, 2016      

As the host nation of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, Brazil has been on the minds of people worldwide over the past several weeks. Yet long after the games end, many people will still be thinking about that country for an entirely different reason– the growth of Brazilian automation and robotics research, education, manufacturing, and usage.

A South American giant

Covering an area of 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers) and with a population of approximately 200 million people, Brazil is immense nation in terms of both geography and demographics.

As the Rio games were designed to prove, Brazil has come a long way over the past few years, emerging on the international scene as a country with a solid economy, a stable currency, and a democratic (although currently tumultuous) government. Brazil has the largest economy in South America (seventh-largest worldwide) and the world’s sixth largest labor force, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data.

In geopolitical and economic circles, Brazil is known as one of the up-and-coming “BRIC” nations. The acronym refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Brazil is also a full member of the Mercosur, a sub-regional economic bloc that also includes Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Over the past several years, Brazil has been lauded by many economic analysts for its rapidly improving performance in economic and social sectors. Yet as several incidents during the Olympics showed, there is still room for substantial improvement in areas such as crime, poverty, public health, logistics infrastructure, and sustainable development.

Nonetheless, Brazil hopes to leverage its size, location, and growing economic influence to become a vital player in the global robotics community as both a user and a producer. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Brazilian robotics imports have increased at an annual rate of 5.3 percent since 2012.

Meanwhile, a study issued by the Federacao das Industrias do Estado de Sao Paulo (FIESP) shows imports of industrial robots growing at an annual rate of 20 percent since 2013.

Brazilian automation starts with research

Robotics research in Brazil is primarily centered at several public universities and a handful of government labs. The Center for Robotics at the Universidade de Sao Carlos, is the most important robotics research facility in the country.

“The philosophy of the Center for Robotics is to develop projects to be transferred to the society,” according to Marco Henrique Terra, the facility’s coordinator. “We must provide alternatives to solve universal problems through robotics, such as rehabilitation of upper and lower limbs in people with disabilities, and problems with a strong national appeal, such as those related to precision agriculture and the pre-salt [oil production] areas in which we are strong economically.”

At the Instituto de Tecnologia Ensino e Pesquisa (ITEP) in Sao Paulo, the Velaqua Project aims to increase the competitive edge of Brazilian swimmers. With the assistance of a robot car mounted on rails, an athlete’s performance can be monitored from jump-in to conclusion. A camera registers the swimmer’s performance in a digital archive and software converts the data into graphs.

Petrobras, Brazil’s quasi-government petroleum company, also engages in robot research. The company’s research center has developed a four-wheeled, remote-controlled robot capable of traveling and monitoring different regions, including land, water, and swamps. It also conducts research on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to monitor deep-sea equipment.

There are also several public-private initiatives underway. For example, Embraer SA, one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, has formed a research partnership with the Instituto Tecnologico de AeronAutica (ITA) to develop Brazilian automation for that industry.

Several professional and academic organizations, such as the Brazilian Computing Society, the Brazilian Automation Society, and the Brazilian Society of Mechanical Sciences, issue a steady stream of robotics- and automation-related research papers and conduct periodic national and regional conferences.

The Brazilian academic community also works to draw young students into robotics research through national competitions, including the Brazilian Robotics Olympics and the Brazilian Robotics Competition.

Several Brazilian companies design and manufacture various types of educational robots. XBot, for example, develops and sells small robots for both instruction and entertainment.

People can learn about Brazilian automation through IAR's Advanced Mobile Unit.

IAR’s Advanced Mobile Unit is a high-tech robotics training environment on wheels. Source: Instituto Avancado de Robotica

Brazilian institutions are also increasingly reaching out to international partners. In July, the Montreal branch of Hypertherm Inc., developer of Robotmaster programming software, announced that in cooperation with its Brazilian distributor, RobotM-Br, it is collaborating with the Instituto Avancado de Robotica (IAR) in a pioneering initiative to take robotics training on the road in Brazil.

Completely dedicated to industrial robotics, IAR’s Advanced Mobile Unit is a dynamic, high-tech training environment on wheels. The 50-foot-long, air conditioned semitrailer is outfitted with two classroom-style training areas, multimedia presentation and conferencing capabilities, and six-axis robots for hands-on experience with the latest technologies.

According to Hypertherm, the Robotmaster software will be used as the reference for developing a new introductory training course in best practices for offline programming. Robotmaster is designed to seamlessly integrate offline programming, simulation, and optimization to any CAD/CAM platform for quick, error-free robot programs with one integrated software product.

The Advanced Mobile Unit will travel throughout Brazil, parking for days and even weeks at universities, trade shows, and corporations. IAR’s partners and customers seeking advanced training in mechatronics and industrial robotics can schedule a visit. In return, a curriculum and onboard technology can be customized to their needs.

Brazilian automation deployments rise

According to the IFR, Brazil has an installed base of only about 4,000 industrial robots, reflecting the fact that Latin America has generally low levels of automation. Most robots in the region continue to be produced on a relatively small scale to meet the specific needs of industrial customers.

The automotive industry currently accounts for nearly half of the industrial robots sold in Brazil. Other Brazilian industries embracing robotics include the electronic, food and beverage, and aerospace industries. Smaller numbers of industrial robots are also sold to the metalworking segment, primarily for use in material handling to form, weld, and lift hot metals.

Government forecasts project that Brazil will significantly boost its automobile production capacity over the next several years, and that by 2020 the nation will manufacture one out of every eight new light vehicles sold in the South America.

If this forecast proves accurate, Brazil’s automotive sector will further increase its demand for robots and robotic applications.

Global companies such as Fiat, Ford, GM, Phillips, Nestle are already customers of Brazilian automation. All of these firms have installed robotic work cells over the past several years. The robots are typically used in applications such as tightening screws, welding, molding, painting and soldering, and pick-and-place tasks.

Beyond Brazilian automation and manufacturing lie many potential robotics applications that have yet to be fully exploited. Brazil, for instance, possesses several large oil and gas fields, both inland and in the Atlantic Ocean. Robots can be used to address many different types of oil production challenges, such as underwater pipeline inspections, equipment assembly/repair tasks, and the remote operation of production platforms.

Petrobras currently uses robots for pipe inspections and several other tasks.

Smaller Brazilian companies also gaining a foothold in this sector. PipeWay Engenharia, for example, produces pipeline inspection robots. The systems have sensors designed to efficiently identify structural problems. These Brazilian robots can check for pipeline anomalies that can lead to leaks and cause serious environmental damage.

More on International and Brazilian Robotics:

Brazilian Federal Police use a homegrown drone.

The Brazilian Federal Police uses a Hermes 450 UAV, supplied by Brazil-based AEL Sistemas, for anti-crime efforts. Source: AEL Sistemas SA

Production climbs for Brazilian robotics

Most of the major international industrial robot manufacturers, including ABB, Boveri, FANUC, KUKA, Mitsubishi, and Siemens have strong presence in Brazil. All of these companies have a sales and service office in at least one Brazilian city. In general, all robots are imported into Brazil by integrators or, in few instances, directly by end users.

Brazilian domestic enterprises that build and deploy robots include Instor, Modelix Robotics and Armtec, which produces several different kinds of robots. The company’s Saci fire-fighting robot, for instance, offers the greatest water jet flow capacity in the world.

The Brazilian defense ministry is engaged in several robotics-oriented projects, including the deployment and operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for border control and other national security purposes.

The HooBox Wheelie robotic wheelchair

Hoo.Box’s Wheelie is a robotic wheelchair that can be controlled via facial expressions. Source: Hoo.Box Robotics

The Brazilian Federal Police uses a Hermes 450 UAV, supplied by Brazil-based AEL Sistemas SA, a subsidiary of Israel-based Elbit Systems Ltd., for anti-crime efforts. The company has also developed a robotic turret for the Brazilian Guarani tank.

A small robotics startup community is also beginning to take shape in Brazil. Hoo.Box Robotics was founded to develop assistive robotics. One of the company’s creations is Wheelie, a robotic wheelchair that can be controlled via facial expressions.

A “kiss” facial expression, for example, activates Wheelie. Moving one’s head forward or backwards can make Wheelie move in those directions. If the user is able to speak, the wheelchair can also recognize voice commands. Simple commands like “Move Forward,” “Turn Right,” and “Stop” can be used. Wheelie currently understands commands in English and Portuguese.