Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

lundi 9 août 2004

Assessing and repairing old gas pipes is difficult and costly, representing about $650 million per year in the U.S. alone. So robotic researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have developed a remote-controlled, untethered, wireless prototype crawling robot, designed to inspect underground gas mains. This robot carries the trademarked name "Explorer" (How original! There are about a thousand trademarks in the U.S. which include "explorer" in their names!) It looks like a link sausage with front- and rear-fisheye cameras and lights and is remotely controlled by an operator sitting in a truck. In a world's premiere, this robot has been successfully used to inspect gas pipes dating from 1890 in Yonkers, N.Y. If you want to purchase one, it will cost you between $50K and $75K providing you buy at least ten units.

Here is the beginning of the CMU news release.

Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers, in conjunction with the Northeast Gas Association (NGA), the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) of the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA, have developed a remote-controlled, untethered, wireless prototype crawling robot, designed to inspect underground gas mains.
Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (Con Edison) recently supported the first deployment of the robot in Yonkers, N.Y., where it successfully inspected hundreds of feet of 8-inch-diameter, live, cast-iron gas main sections originally installed in 1890.

Now, let's look like at the robot itself.

The robot, known as Explorerô, is segmented like a link sausage with front- and rear-fisheye cameras and lights. It has the ability to interact with a remote operator via wireless communication while it's inside a pipe. It can relay near real-time images of a pipe's interior, as well as other data, back to the operator who controls and views it from a street-side control van at the excavation site. Explorer can travel great distances from its point of entry into the pipeline. Its travel range is exclusively determined by its wireless communication range and battery power.

Below is an illustration showing an ideal Explorer exploring a pipe (Credit: CMU).

The Explorer wireless robot inside a pipe

Below is a photograph showing a prototype of the Explorer sitting on a pipe (Credit: NETL). This image comes from a NETL page describing the Explorer project.

The Explorer sitting on a pipe

Here are the explanations from the main developer, Hagen Schempf, a principal systems scientist in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institutewho's also behind the Dragon Planner robot.

"This kind of remote inspection technology is truly enabling and will change the face of infrastructure maintenance," said Schempf. "It is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using high-tech wireless inspection devices in areas traditionally thought to be inaccessible to human beings. The implications to potential cost-savings for preventative maintenance, inspection and emergency response should not be overlooked by any utility that has to manage its underground infrastructure."
"We believe this to be the beginning of a new technology application arena for robotics and wireless communications," said Schempf. "It just happens to be inside a pipe, underground and out of sight. This kind of technology will be essential in years to come to control costs in utility operating budgets and may even expand to other applications outside of gas distribution."

The main advantage of the Explorer when compared with traditional exploration cameras is its range of acion, up to 2,500 feet compared with 100 to 200 feet.

What about prices and availability? This page and this one give the answers. The hardware will cost between $50k and $75k in 10+ unit volume, with annual maintenance costs between 3% to 5% of the acquisition price. But you also will be able to rent it on per-foot/per-day basis.

Sources: Carnegie Mellon news release, via EurekAlert!, August 4, 2004; and various websites

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