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Bots Enlisted for Confined-Space Work

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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WASHINGTON--Navy robots and automated systems capable of blasting and painting in confined spaces aboard ships soon may offer relief to their human counterparts.

The National Shipbuilding Research Program (NSRP) has just completed the first of three phases of development on a High Mobility Manufacturing Robot (HMMR).

Once the final phase is complete, the robotic and automated technology will enable people to guide prep work and painting from outside, rather than inside, confined spaces.


The U.S. Navy and National Shipbuilding Research Program are working with Robotics Technology of Tennessee LLC and others on a machine that can clean, prepare and paint confined spaces.

Engineers at Robotic Technologies of Tennessee LLC (RTT) in Cookeville, TN, have been partnering with NSRP and the U.S. Navy on an automated system that can work on difficult-to-access surfaces aboard ships. NSRP announced June 3 that it had successfully designed a robot that can buff a floor—step one in the project.

RTT specializes in climbing robots, an area of expertise that will come in handy in later phases of the NSRP project, said Steve Glavosky, executive vice president.

In fact, Glavosky said, the RTT team is already moving on to the second phase: developing an automated system capable of scaling T-beams and I-beams that fit together welding panels while completing the fit-welds on those panels.

The final phase will include putting together what the team has learned from phases one and two and completing an automated system that can buff, weld, blast and coat the inside of a ship.

Man vs. Machine

“There are millions of man hours spent doing surface prep work and maintenance in ship compartments,” said Jamie Beard, president of RTT, in 2014.


RTT develops automation that “transforms how we work on large metal structures.”

“Working in these compartments is difficult and dangerous. Creating automation that can assist and augment shipyard workers will make this work safer and easier.

"It will also help extend careers and keep workers healthier.”

RTT worked with Tennessee Tech University, BAE Systems SE Shipyard, Ingalls Shipbuilding, NASSCO and VT Halter on the first phase of the project. That phase involved designing a Roomba-like robot that uses sensors to find its way around a room while buffing the floor.

Engineers had to experiment with sensor technology while building a robot that could withstand the rigorous environment of a ship under construction.

Ready for Risks

“When you’re dealing with ship construction, there’s a lot of metal that flies around, stray shards, and high temperatures,” said Glovsky.

“The robots are able to endure that better than people operating in these environments.”

In phase one, RTT engineers designed an industrial Roomba-like machine that uses sensors to navigate a room and buff a floor. In phase 2, the team will develop a robot that can scale T-beams and I-beams that fit together welding panels and perform the fit-welding of those panels.

Engineers also will have to consider the ergonomic restrictions of confined spaces when building the robotic arms that will be blasting and coating, said Glovsky.

That means having a system that can move its arm freely—and in the right direction—when space gets tight. The team will use open-loop automation that will allow a worker outside the confined space to operate a robot that is inside.

"Whether it's heads-up display or cameras, we will have some system in there that will allow a worker to interact with the robot," said Glavosky.

The second phase of the project is expected to be finished this year; the final product, in 2016.


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Coatings Technology; Confined space; Robotics; Surface preparation; Surface preparation equipment; U.S. Navy

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