Carnegie Mellon Researchers Develop Robot That Chews Asbestos Off Of Pipes

March 19, 1998

PITTSBURGH--Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, working under a $2 million contract from the Department of Energy's (DoE) Federal Energy Technology Center (FETC) in Morgantown, W. Va., have developed a crawling robot known as BOA that removes asbestos from the outsides of pipes.

The device is part of a robotics technology development program initiated by DoE to help decontaminate and clean up its nuclear weapons sites and other polluted areas.

V.J. Kothari, FETC's technical monitor for the project, says the robot has been designed to meet OSHA and all state and local regulatory requirements for airborne particle emissions. It offers the first safe, economical, mechanical solution to one of the nation's most pressing environmental problems--removing asbestos insulation in older buildings. EPA regulations require that buildings containing asbestos insulation cannot be demolished or renovated until the highly carcinogenic material is removed, and asbestos particulate must be contained while removal is underway.

BOA was conceived by Robotics Institute Systems Scientist Hagen Schempf and developed over the past three years by a team of students and technicians under his direction.

"Most of the steam and process piping in DoE facilities is insulated with asbestos-containing materials," says Schempf. "They have to be removed before any decontamination and dismantling can take place. Up to now, asbestos abatement has been done by humans. DoE was looking for a better, safer, faster and cheaper way to do it."

BOA is placed on vertical or horizontal piping by remote control. Then, it crawls along on the outside of the pipes and chews off the insulation materials. It wets them, encapsulates the stripped pipe with a fast drying adhesive to capture microscopic particulate and bags the removed insulation at the site. As the robot chews, a vacuum hose sucks the material and waste water away for reuse later. An off-board support logistics system supplies power to the robot and provides a user support interface.

BOA was demonstrated last summer at DoE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It will be field tested again at another site in May.

The BOA project got underway in 1994. The challenge, says Schempf, was to build an automatic system containing sensors, actuators, computers and cutting equipment that was small enough, yet capable enough to handle hazardous, loose material in a constrained environment.

Schempf feels the system has commercial potential.

"Today," he says, "the only competition for BOA is humans." Human abatement costs about $100 a linear foot. The robot operates at a rate of 30 feet per hour-- about 10 times faster than a person can--and is expected to achieve a 30-50 percent cost savings compared to traditional containment techniques.

BOA has taken second place in a national design competition sponsored by the trade publication "Design News." It was chosen from more than 100 entries and cited as one of the most innovative new product designs developed in the U.S. in 1997. The robot will be on display at the National Design Engineering Show and Conference in Chicago, March 16-19.

Kothari notes that FETC has been working with Robotics Institute researchers on solutions to DoE decontamination problems for more than five years. In addition to BOA, DoE is using two other robots that evolved from robotics research at Carnegie Mellon--Rosie, a long-reach, remote work vehicle for decontamination and decommissioning that has been commercialized by RedZone Robotics, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based university spinoff, and Houdini, a reconfigurable work machine being used at the Argonne and Oak Ridge National laboratories to remove radioactive sludge from storage tanks.
Contact: Anne Watzman, Carnegie Mellon
(412) 268-3830
V.J. Kothari, Federal Energy Technology Center

Carnegie Mellon University

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