UK Invests in Utility-Repairing Robot

THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2021

The second-largest gas distribution network in the United Kingdom, gas utility SGN, has recently begun investing in the development of an autonomous roadwork robot.

Designed by Hauppauge, New York-based ULC Technologies, the Robotic Roadworks and Excavation System aims to replace conventional methods of excavation performed daily by gas networks on transmission and distribution mains and other underground infrastructure.

About RRES

Typically, accessing subsurface utilities buried beneath roadways can take two to three days to complete and almost always involves multiple lane closures and the use of heavy equipment. To accelerate the process, SGN and ULC began developing RRES.

“Three years ago we started this project with an ambitious goal,” recalled Ali Asmari, research and design project manager and head of AI and machine learning at ULC Technologies. “To do everything with excavation: identify buried assets, find buried assets and excavate soil above those assets, all with less involvement from a human. The robot can install a fitting on a gas pipe, and once the operation is done, it can restore material into the keyhole [excavation] and cap it.”

According to Ollie Machan, SGN’s project lead for RRES, the robot enhances safety for the utility crews. Aside from two human operators to inspect RRES’s completed tasks and switch out its tool cart, the stand-alone, battery-powered robot practically does everything on its own.

“RRES takes the operator out of the excavator, so if anything happens with the gas or electric, we’ve already taken them out of [danger],” said Machan.

ULC also highlights other benefits of RRES, including:

  • Improved efficiency;
  • Lower risk of damage;
  • Higher repeatability;
  • Enhanced safety;
  • Minimized disruption; and
  • Reduced CO2 emissions.

Comprised of a track-mounted platform which houses the robot’s battery and onboard computer, RRES also boasts a robotic arm with six degrees of articulation. For performing different tasks and stages of the excavation process, RRES is capable of automatically changing them out from its attached tool carts.

In addition to the combination of custom tools, the working protype also uses AI-based learning to navigate construction sites and perform its tasks. When first approaching a utility dig site, RRES assesses the site with a ground-penetrating radar attachment so that it can outline the area beneath the road’s surface. However, this guide is typically edited manually by an operator so that the machine can zero in on the exact location of the buried utilities.

From there, RRES confirms the depth of the dig by swapping its radar tool with a core drill. From there, RRES switches out for a custom 35-hp electric chainsaw to cut a circular keyhole in the roadway and is capable of making oval-shaped cuts up to 36 inches in diameter. Using a different pneumatic tool, RRES then lifts the core from the ground so that excavation of the soil below can take place. RRES performs this task within a box frame to prevent spillage outside the work area.

“Every time [the nozzles] agitate it, the vacuum removes the soil,” says Asmari. “We have a force sensor at the end, so if [the RRES] comes in contact with the asset below ground, it will retract and allow the operator to go look in.”

For the first RRES prototype, Asmari adds that the team mostly focused on cases specific to SGN’s gas network, so it has been programmed to complete tasks such as cleaning standard gas pipes, clamping materials, cutting and installing thermoplastic fittings, among other things.

The robot is currently being tested on 30-foot-by-30-foot roadways meant to emulate the kind of roadbeds found in U.K. cities as well cities in the United States. SGN has already made a $8.35 million initial investment in the development of the RRES, but plans to expand its potential uses.

“We’re already doing parallel trials with Transport for London,” John Richardson, head of risk for SGN noted. “It’s not just for gas distribution networks, but all sectors. We’re also now looking for collaborative partners to develop this with [further].”

Recent Research

In March, a team from Carnegie Mellon’s Biorobotics Lab in the School of Computer Science's Robotics Institute tested what it’s calling a Hardened Underwater Modular Robot Snake. According to CMU, HUMRS was created to assist the Department of Defense with inspecting ships, submarines and other underwater infrastructure for damage or as part of routine maintenance.

Led by Howie Choset and Matt Travers, co-directors of the Biorobotics Lab, the submersible robot snake was developed through a grant from the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. Currently, the DoD is reported to have limited options when it comes to inspecting areas like a ship's hull, often requiring the Navy to either send down a team of divers at the ship’s location, postpone the inspection until the ship returns to port or schedule the vessel for a dry dock—all of which can be costly and take time to execute.

Mechanical and mechatronics engineer in the Biorobotics Lab also working on the submersible snakebot, Nate Shoemaker-Trejo, explained that HUMRS’ distinguishing feature is that its narrow and jointed, giving it the ability to form and be flexible in otherwise tight spaces where traditional submersibles can’t reach.

Outside of inspecting ship hulls and vessels, Shoemaker-Trejo predicts that the developing technology could be used for inspecting underwater pipes for damage or blockages, assess offshore oil rigs, check the integrity of a tank while it is filled with liquid, as well as inspect and maintain any fluid-filled systems.

That same month, researchers from the University of Newcastle School of Engineering reported that they’d begun developing a new drone technology to help predict what areas and specific pipes are at risk of water loss through corrosion.

While the risk of degradation is traditionally dependent on an underground water supply network’s age and the amount of moisture in the ground surrounding the infrastructure, more recently, sensor devices have been deployed at specific sites to measure water flow to indicate leaks or breaks.

The technique utilizes a Light Detection and Ranging sensor, commonly referred to as LiDAR, which is a remote sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to measure ranges and variable distances to the Earth. From the differences collected in laser return times and wavelengths, the data can then be used to make digital 3D-representations of the landscape and indicate the amount of water in the ground.

The LiDAR drone technology research headed by University of Newcastle investigates soil moisture and corrosion and is part of a larger innovative smart water management project coordinated by NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) and is led by Sydney Water.

Looking to the future of this technology, Yeo sees these emerging techniques being used beyond assessing the state of water infrastructure to such applications as monitoring wetlands and managing irrigation.


Tagged categories: EU; Europe; Infrastructure; Research and development; Roads/Highways; Robotics; Technology; Tools & Equipment; Utilities

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