In Focus: Derick Markwell Founder and MD of Roborigger

For Derick Markwell, Managing Director and Founder of Roborigger, all it took was a fortuitous conversation at a networking event in 2015, to provide the inspiration for an innovative device. From a factory in Perth, Western Australia, Roborigger is revolutionising lifting operations providing a safer and more efficient environment for personnel on worksites. We couldn’t wait to speak to Derick to find out more about their device and international expansion plans.

Kim Moss by Kim Moss,

Roborigger, has made a strong impression over the past eighteen months. Not only were they the first company to win three Platinum Awards at the WA Innovator of the Year 2019 but the device they have developed has also been recognised by the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety WA as the Best Solution for a Work Health and Safety Risk. These achievements have gained the company nationwide publicity and led to a $5 million Series A funding by Blackbird Ventures in early 2020.

Today, the device is used for a multitude of industry applications to keep personnel safe during lifting operations, including high rise building construction, loading of pipes on supply vessels, and conducting challenging lifts at mine sites. There’s also a clever IoT function which improves efficiency and rivals even the best parcel tracking systems in operation. Some of the biggest names in the construction and resources industry are counted as users, including Multiplex, Built, Woodside Energy, and Newmont.

This is just the beginning and Roborigger now has its sights firmly set on taking advantage of the peaked interest from safety-orientated leaders in Japan, Europe and the Middle East.  

How does the device work and what is unique about it?

Roborigger consists of both the load orienting device and also the data and logistics management system that uses the sensors on the various devices to provide a cloud based automatic logistics tracking system.

The Roborigger load orienting device works on the principle that if people aren’t near loads, they can’t be injured.  Roborigger means taglines are no longer needed and the device can accurately rotate and control orientation of loads regardless of wind. This is a game changer for crane safety.

The unit is battery-powered and operates for a maximum of 12 hours on a charge. It’s very simple to use and consists of turn clockwise and anti-clockwise buttons. When the button is pressed the device rotates the load at 10 degrees per second and when the button is released the orientation of the load is maintained at this position.

With Roborigger’s wireless release hook, loads can also be disconnected from the crane hook remotely, increasing safety significantly, especially in marine vessel operations where personnel normally need to be on deck to unhook the load.

The data capture uses load cell, camera, GPS and optional AI to identify all load movements and save the data to the cloud.

Can you tell us more about this IoT application and its importance?

We started with the load orienting device and then realised that we can use the data already available to deliver an automated logistics tracking system.

Our IoT system collects data from every crane lift including time, weight, and the location of the loads being lifted. It also takes a photo of every load from each lift and set down. We are performing image analysis to categorise lifts by type using generic terms (for example: concrete panel, reinforcement and rubbish skip) and by the dominant colour. A load can be found using any of the barcode, QR code, RFID code, weight range, location, dominant colour or load category. Data can be input from a Roborigger load controlling device, devices on forklifts, or even via a mobile phone.

Roborigger records non-conforming events including shock, overload, incorrect usage, sudden change of load and comprehensive telemetry on the unit’s operation for maintenance purposes.

The ability to continuously gather and collect lifting data offers customers productivity insight, for example: lifts per hour, lifts per day and total load lifted.

Is any special training needed?

In addition to the two hours Roborigger online training, crane drivers and dogmen typically only need a half-day practical training session to be proficient at using Roborigger to control and rotate the crane loads. We can offer the training on-site or at a convenient site location and all trained riggers will be issued with a Certified Roborigger Operator certificate.

Could you share a couple of highs and lows of your start-up journey?

The last 18 months have seen many highs for Roborigger. Our achievements in the WA Innovator of the Year 2019 and the recognition by WorkSafe WA as the Best Solution to a Work Health and Safety Risk in the same year helped gain nationwide publicity, leading to our $5 million Series A funding by Blackbird Ventures in 2020.

Roborigger also hit several international milestones including winning a contract with Dubai contractor Alec, and a trial with Woodside at Ranong Port in Thailand. In preparation for the export market, we’ve also been growing our team and Roborigger fleet over the last year

The Roborigger journey has not been without major challenges. There was an embarrassing failure at an initial demonstration for Woodside in Karratha in Western Australia with a control system we couldn’t get to work, failure of our remote controls due to a defective product and even departure of colleagues who felt we would never succeed and moved to more secure jobs.

There is a continual learning experience which comes with developing a new product and having to bring in the latest technology where there are no proven examples of how to do it!

Despite the challenges you’ve succeeded and had an impressive response from Industry in Australia, can you tell us about some of the partnerships you’ve been involved in?

Multiplex and Woodside are early adopters of Roborigger. They have a genuine focus on safety and innovation and are prepared to invest in a technology that may take time to be operational.

In 2017, we took a prototype of the device to Multiplex, which, I must admit was mediocre at that stage. Their response was ‘Make it work and there is a market for it. We would use it.’ So, we had another crack, built one that worked and demonstrated it. Multiplex liked it and became an official development partner. They provided a crane yard, tested it, and gave us feedback. We then had twelve months in testing mode on the new Perth museum, with feedback from users on site. Now, Multiplex have deployed Roborigger units on its construction sites in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney

Woodside have also supported us from the beginning and contributed to help develop our control system through its partnership with Curtin University. Woodside is now trialling Roborigger units on its operations both in Australia and overseas.

We are continuing our partnership with Curtin University and Innovation Central Perth (ICP) to develop an AI image recognition capability which will enable Roborigger system to recognise, detect, and give warning when personnel are within the fall zone of suspended loads. Last year, ICP awarded Roborigger with a Summer Innovation Internship grant to engage a Computer System Engineering student to work on the project, who was subsequently hired by Roborigger as an intern. We have now developed a commercial-ready Personnel Detection System, and this has received an expression of interest from Rio Tinto to trial the system.

What’s next for Roborigger internationally and in Australia?

I believe that some of our biggest opportunities are overseas.  We’re seeing great interest from construction companies in Japan, Europe and the Middle East because of their focus on new technologies and a high safety standard.

On the other hand, the Australian mining and resource companies have a very strong safety culture. The resources industry has great interest in automation and new technologies, and they have access to solid financial reserves which allow them to explore new opportunities.

There are great opportunities available in following our Australian resource companies around the world once we get established with them in Australia.

We’ve only scratched the surface so far. We’re currently developing specialised equipment for handling wind turbine blades, containers, pipe handling and then there are others I can’t talk about at the moment.  We already have units operating in the Middle East and South East Asia and we will be operating in Europe and Japan in this year. We also plan to hit the US market in 2022. 

To learn more about Roborigger’s global growth in the face of COVID-19 challenges, you can read this recent case study by Invest and Trade WA and Export Council Australia.