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2013: The Year in Robots

A new robot that detects cracks in tunnel walls could save governments money on inspection crews, and represents yet another invention in a series of robots released in recent years.

A robot that detects cracks in tunnels now joins the many other robots being used by governments today. Under development now for the European Union’s ROBINSPECT program, the semi-autonomous tunnel-inspecting robot consists of a small unmanned vehicle connected to a crane and robotic arm with various sensors. A working prototype is expected to be finished sometime next year.

The robot can reportedly work at a rate of three feet per second, scanning tunnel walls and generating rough two-dimensional images. From those images, the robot searches for cracks meeting certain criteria and when it finds them, generates more detailed three-dimensional images using ultrasound and laser technology.

The robot requires a human operator, who can issue commands like “stop” or “advance,” but the robot’s work is largely autonomous, stopping only to notify the operator of cracks. Researchers predict such a robot could save government money by reducing the number of crew members needed to inspect a tunnel, while also increasing safety and reducing the duration of tunnel closures.

The tunnel inspecting robot is similar to another type that provides comparable functionality, but on the ground, rather than on tunnel walls. Developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the prototype robot not only uses a stereoscopic camera to generate a “crack map,” but fixes those cracks on the fly using 12 sealant nozzles.

Dirty Jobs

Robots are also increasingly being used for cleanup and to keep facilities safe. In November, California-based SunPower bought startup Greenbotics, a company that engineers robots to wash solar panels, which maximizes their energy absorption. The robots were found to use 90 percent less water than manual solar panel cleaning methods and work faster than people can, cleaning 6 megawatts' worth of panels in one hour.

SunPower reported that this robotic breakthrough solved a problem which had previously been unsolveable: it was not cost-efficient to hire people to clean solar panels frequently since the resulting efficiency gains outweighed the human capital costs. Some predict that such advances in robotics could help the alternative energy industry succeed and ultimately replace fossil fuels as a primary energy source.

Robots aren’t just cleaning things, but destroying them too. The overpopulation of jellyfish in many regions of the world can cause damage to power plants and battleships as the animals are caught in facility pipes and cooling systems. Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology built a robot swarm that navigates the sea by GPS, looking for jellyfish. Once detected, jellyfish are funnelled into sharp spinning fan blades. Such robots could replace the need to use chemical agents to control jellyfish numbers.

Dangerous Jobs

While some robots are used to prevent problems with nuclear power plant operations, others are used after a major issue arises. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, several types of robots typically used in warzones were sent into the site to assist in cleanup and recovery. The iRobot PackBot, for example, is capable of detecting chemicals and has been used to defuse bombs in the Middle East.

The idea of repurposing wartime robots for use in emergency and disaster response also gave birth to a firefighting robot in July. A team of engineering graduate students at the University of California, San Diego, won $10,000 at the Student Infrared Imaging Competition after designing a two-wheeled prototype that could climb stairs, generate three-dimensional images of a building’s interior, and report back to operators, all while withstanding intense heat. Researchers told Government Technology that they are now working on a version 2.0 of the robot, with an announcement likely coming in spring 2014.

Robots have been used to clean oil spills, assist with medical research, and even entertain crowds in Manhattan’s Union Square as robot band Compressorhead, built by General Electric engineers, took the stage.

Scientists are working now on programming Atlas, the Pentagon’s 6-foot, 2-inch, 330-pound humanitarian robot, designed to enter disaster zones like the aforementioned Fukushima site, and events like the Pepcom Holiday Spectacular show that people are as interested as ever in the field of robotics. As the cost of components lower, computer programming becomes more mainstream, and new varieties of cheap DIY kits are released – like the Arduino Raspberry Pi – it’s conceivable that 2014 will bring many more new robots designed to improve people’s lives, in government, public safety and elsewhere.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.
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