Student researchers at Australia’s University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), have developed the world’s first autonomous climbing robot for steel bridge inspection, working in conjunction with autonomous drones that don’t require GPS. The robots are designed to work together, the robot inspecting the inside of bridges, while the drone inspects the outside.
Confined Space Inspection Climbing Robot, or CROC, is an autonomous robot inspired by the movement of an inchworm. With its special magnetic foot, CROC can climb vertical steel walls, avoid obstacles, and pivot through small spaces inside bridges and other steel structures such as ship hulls, transmission towers, and oil rigs. Along the way, it can collect and record inspection data and compare it with data from previous visits.
CROC is an intelligent robot that sees and thinks for itself, answering questions such as Where am I? Where do I want to go now? How do I get there? What do I want to do now? and How do I do that?
CROC is the result of several years’ collaboration between a team of nine researchers at UTS and engineers from New South Wales’ Roads and Maritime Services. The project is in its fifth year and is one of many industry-related robotics projects initiated and run by Professor Dikai Liu, the director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems (CAS) at the university.
According to Peter Ward, team leader for the project’s hardware and testing side, CROC is unique: “First, it needs sight and an idea of how far away objects are. Once it has explored its environment and constructed a map, it figures out where to go next and how it’s going to get there, all the while making sure it won’t collide with anything.” He calls these processes exploration, mapping, localization, planning and collision avoidance, all challenges the researchers have solved by developing sophisticated algorithms, with this robot and other projects at CAS.
Simultaneously, at the same lab, researcher Dr. Dinuka Abeywardena is developing an intelligent drone that doesn’t rely on GPS. Signals needed for GPS navigation can be disrupted, especially in urban or indoor environments, reducing the drone’s effectiveness.
Dr. Abeywardena explains, “What we are doing differently is improving the perception capabilities of the drone,” he says. “We’re using a camera as its eye, so that it can explore its environment and collect data around it. The images from the camera get processed by an on-board computer, to estimate how it moves and flies, its speed and tilt and the direction of the wind.”
While CROC inspects the inside of bridges, the drone could inspect the outside. It could also monitor tree growth along power lines and conduct bushfire inspections, saving time and money for companies that now use manned helicopters.
CROC can be seen in action at: