Carnegie Mellon develops robot that successfully explored gas mains in NY

August 04, 2004

PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers, in conjunction with the Northeast Gas Association (NGA), the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) of the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA, have developed a remote-controlled, untethered, wireless prototype crawling robot, designed to inspect underground gas mains.

Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (Con Edison) recently supported the first deployment of the robot in Yonkers, N.Y., where it successfully inspected hundreds of feet of 8-inch-diameter, live, cast-iron gas main sections originally installed in 1890.

The robot, known as ExplorerTM, is segmented like a link sausage with front- and rear-fisheye cameras and lights. It has the ability to interact with a remote operator via wireless communication while it's inside a pipe. It can relay near real-time images of a pipe's interior, as well as other data, back to the operator who controls and views it from a street-side control van at the excavation site. Explorer can travel great distances from its point of entry into the pipeline. Its travel range is exclusively determined by its wireless communication range and battery power.

Explorer was developed by Hagen Schempf, a principal systems scientist in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, in conjunction with his engineering team in the institute's Hazardous Environments Robotics Laboratory (HERL) at the National Robotics Engineering Consortium. "This kind of remote inspection technology is truly enabling and will change the face of infrastructure maintenance," said Schempf. "It is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using high-tech wireless inspection devices in areas traditionally thought to be inaccessible to human beings. The implications to potential cost-savings for preventative maintenance, inspection and emergency response should not be overlooked by any utility that has to manage its underground infrastructure."

The Explorer project has been jointly funded by the research and development committee of NGA and DoE's NETL's Strategic Center for Natural Gas Infrastructure in Morgantown, W.Va., with kick-off seed funding from NASA and NGA. The system has been under development for more than three years and has been rigorously tested in a variety of pipe-environments.

"Because it is untethered and has the capability to make 90-degree turns in elbows and tees, Explorer will allow us to inspect live 6- and 8-inch gas mains for much longer distances from one excavation/entry point than the conventional push-rod cameras currently used," said George Vradis, project manager for NGA.

"The field trials with Gas Explorer were the world's first for an untethered, visual inspection camera robot in a live gas main," said Phil Fowles, senior engineer at Con Edison. "This will significantly reduce our costs per foot of pipe inspected, especially in the all-too-common situation where multiple excavations are presently needed to locate the point of water intrusion into our low-pressure, cast-iron system."

"This robotic inspection platform represents a technology for assuring the integrity and reliability of natural gas pipelines in the future," added Rodney J. Anderson, technology manager, natural gas delivery reliability storage, at DoE's National Energy Technology Laboratory. "When integrated with next-generation advanced sensors, the Explorer concept will allow accurate, high-resolution inspections of all natural gas pipelines, including those that are currently unpiggable."

The system is currently targeted at 6- to 8-inch distribution mains, the norm in many urban areas. It is intended for long-range camera inspections from a single excavation and represents a cost-reduction over other camera systems that currently require a new excavation every 100 to 200 feet. Explorer can inspect hundreds of feet from one excavation point. Researchers are applying for a patent on the technology.

"We believe this to be the beginning of a new technology application arena for robotics and wireless communications," said Schempf. "It just happens to be inside a pipe, underground and out of sight. This kind of technology will be essential in years to come to control costs in utility operating budgets and may even expand to other applications outside of gas distribution." For more information on the gas explorer see: http://www.rec.ri.cmu.edu/projects/explorer/
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Carnegie Mellon University

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