Saturday, January 12, 2019

Robots of the World - Pipe Inspection Robots

Robots of the World ...  

Robots are becoming more and more everyday. The first use cases have been in the automation of welding and painting in manufacturing. These are dangerous jobs with hazardous materials or processes that require repetitive tasks. Perfect for robotic automation.

When it comes to first use cases for roving robots, the inspection of hazardous and difficult locations will be at the top of th list. Today you can see immediate applications in the inspection of offshore oil rigs, constructions sites, decommissioning of nuclear reactors, and underwater inspections.

Inuktun - Versatrax150 - Pipe Inspection Robot

One class of remote inspection is pipe and sewer inspection. Like anything underground, these are dirty, constrained, dangerous, sometimes flooded environments. There currently are a collection of commercial pipe inspection machines, and robots are starting to fill this need. (picture above: Inuktun Versatrax 150)

A report with great detail
In Dec 2017, the Department of Transportation of Ohio (USA), created a report on the available robotic equipment that can be used in the inspection of culverts, pipes, and other underground conduits. The report contains a good overview of the time of vendors, types of equipment, best use recommendations, and cost.

The PDF report can be found here:  
Evaluation of New or Emerging Remote Inspection Technologies for Conduits Ranging from 12” to 120” Spans

Common traits
Each of the Robot come from different designers and companies, but all share a basic set of requirements.  The robots need to be able to reliably withstand the environment they are placed in. They must be able to traverse the pipe or culvert which can be wet, slippery, or obstructed. They must be able to carry a high quality camera for visual inspection. They must be able to carry a payload of other sensors such as pipe thickness ultrasound, laser measurement, and gas detection sensors. They must either have on board power or a power teather. They have to convey all of this information back to the operator. Like doctors, they should 'cause no harm' to the environment they are in. Which means they must no get stuck!

The common designs:

  • High Traction - typically crawlers with tracked treads, some with magnetic treads for pipes
  • Rough Terrain - requiring high clearance and ability to climb over obstacles
  • Waterproof/water-tight - These bots go into flooded culverts, sewers, mains, etc. 
  • Small - to be used in very small pipes and culverts
  • Modular - components can be quickly added and removed in the field
  • Tethered - to be removed if their drive systems fail (interesting lack of automation)

Inspection Payload:

  • camera, cameras, etc
  • Laser measurement
  • Sonar
  • Gas Sensors
  • Temperature
  • sensors sensor sensors

Market and Cost The cost of these robots have a dramatic range.  Units can cost as low as $15,000 USD, to as high as $500,000 USD.  The variation in cost often is associate with size and capability. It is hard to determine reliability from the marketing material. It would look to be fairly typical that the total cost of ownership of one of these mid size systems would be around $200,000 USD.

This cost range would acceptable for large construction companies and governments. It would produce a potential rental business, or specialty inspections companies that would have high reuse. Certainly, at these price points there would be an opportunity for innovative solutions to disrupt this industry.

Some of the more impressive models:



Deep Trekker

Final Thoughts:
This market is soon to be expanded. As lower cost robotics become available, it would be possible to expand the market to users with lower operational cost thresholds. Markets such as property inspection have not yet been exploited. In addition, these robots will only become the remote sensors for a larger aggregation of operational and geospatial data. Ultimately, it will not just the robot technology that is considered, but the data management platform as well.

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