Autonomous Robots are Moving From Below the Streets and On to Highways


A robot powers its way beneath city streets checking pipes for fissures and leaks and works completely on its own. In a far different scenario above ground in the outdoors, a robot rides a rail up the side of a transmission tower sending video images to its operator.

Meanwhile, researchers from many different disciplines are working to create what commuters call the ultimate driving machine—autonomous cars.

From underground streets to traveling on highways and interstates, discover the many ways that autonomous robots are put to use.

Crawling to Hidden Leaks

Underground pipes running for miles below city streets and sidewalks are a challenge to inspect for leaks, fissures, and other pending problems. In two neighborhoods around Pittsburgh, traditional inspection methods using a crew and camera tethered on a cable took about four months to cover 80,000 linear feet.

A robot working solo, aptly named The Solo and developed by Red Zone Robotics, was sent below Pittsburgh to inspect the city's sewer lines. The robot completed the job within four to six weeks, about half the time using traditional methods. The other plus was that the cost of $ 1.50 per linear foot was less expensive than using a crew operating a camera and cable.

The robot really is autonomous. It can be launched and sent on its inspection duties with no human interaction. The Solo can pan-tilt-zoom so the video that's captured and sent to a PC gives a 360-degree view of a pipe segment. Another benefit was crawling and checking on small diameter pipes that had never been previously inspected because of their size.

Many cities don't do inspections. Instead, they flush the pipes and that's a practice that can wash away important clues about the health of a system. The Solo has also done work in Fort Worth, Texas along with cities in Illinois, Georgia, and Florida. Multi-sensor inspection technology in the robot helps municipal systems increase efficiency while lowering operating costs.

Climbing to Inspect

Autonomous robots aren't just going underground. They're climbing transmission lines so maintenance workers don't have to risk serious injuries. The article Climbing with Maxon Drives on the Robotic Industries Association website describes how a technician using a tablet controls a robot riding a rail up the side of a transmission tower. A swiveling camera strapped to the robot's body sends images back to the operator in real time to assist in both routine maintenance and fixing power problems.

Equip it with a fire extinguisher and it can be used to combat fires in cable ducts, wind turbines, or buildings. The robot's sensors protect against collisions and self-monitors the available battery power.

Driving the Distance

The sensors that have given robots perception so they can safely move are among the components that are making way for the much-anticipated autonomous robots of the future. We call them self-driving cars. Motion sensors along with radar, GPS, and cameras will comprise this autonomous robot of the future.

An article in Georgia Tech's Horizon's magazine titled Rolling Robots focuses on the many disciplines that are working together today to make the cars of the future. Specialists designing industrial systems along with those in engineering, computing, and psychology are working together to plot and plan a road map to robotic vehicles.

Scan the horizon to see how automation is shaping industry and consumer life. Resources like the video series "Why I Automate" links to articles and thought leaders, and membership information with global organizations are available through A3.