Robot snakes inspect nuclear power plant

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute have developed a vision-enabled snake robot that was able to crawl through steam pipes, open valves, and otherwise difficult-to-inspect areas in its initial run in a nuclear power plant in Austria.

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Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’sRobotics Institute have developed a vision-enabled snake robot that was able to crawl through steam pipes, open valves, and otherwise difficult-to-inspect areas in its initial run in a nuclear power plant in Austria.

Equipped with avideo camera and LED lighting on its head, the snake can twist and turn as it moves through or over pipes, as video feeds back to the control station. As the snake moves, so does the video camera, as the researchers corrected the camera so it always aligns with gravity. Hard-to-reach and perhaps radioactively-contaminated areas of power plants prevent people and other robots from inspecting such areas, so the snake provides a way to reach them.

With the robot snake, the researchers were able to obtain clear and well lit-images from pipes and valves from about 60 feet out.

Martin Fries, an engineer for EVN Group (the plant owner) said in thepress release that though the deployment at the plant was limited, the snake robot reached areas that would be difficult or impossible to access with a borescope, and could prove to be quite useful going forward.

"With further development and testing, such a robot could give operators a more complete understanding of a plant's condition and perhaps reduce a plant's downtime by enabling faster, more efficient inspections,” he said.

Thus far, the snake robots have been tested in urban search-and-rescue environments, through the rubble of collapsed buildings, in archaeological excavations, and in conventional fossil fuel plants. But with further development, the robots could prove to be even more useful.

Robotics Professor Howie Choset says that with more work, the snake robot could be enabled to perform simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), a robotic technique that would produce a map of a nuclear plant's pipe network as it exists.

View more information about theSnake Robot project
View more information about the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute.

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