The Problem – Infrastructure in the United States Desperately Needs Maintenance and Repair
Professor Canfield and Dr. Beard were eager to apply their robot expertise to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) challenge to build a climbing robot for inspections. Helping the TVA could have the added benefit of helping America’s infrastructure crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States a grade of “D” in maintaining its infrastructure and estimates $1.6 trillion is needed to fix the problem.
Our country relies on hundreds of thousands of steel structures. Some of these structures, especially those used by utility companies, are critical in managing electricity, natural gas, water, and sewage. Over time, these structures will fail. They must be maintained or replaced to prevent interruptions of critical public services. Knowing if and when they will fail saves everyone a lot of problems.
The TVA provides electricity for 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states. It creates power from (1) fossil fuel, (2) nuclear and (3) hydroelectric systems. In each of these systems large steel structures are critical. The hydro electric systems involve large tanks and penstocks to manage water. Fossil fuel systems involve large tanks to manage catalysts, boil water and store waste products. Nuclear plants utilize massive containment vessels often wrapped in steel structures.
Historically, to inspect these structures you had to reach them using scaffolding, lift tricks or climbing gear. These options are dangerous, expensive and time consuming. The TVA knew that a remote operated mobile climbing robot would offer a better option.
What would these robots look like? How would they be built? How would they remain in contact with walls? The team built a variety of robot prototypes that could climb steel walls using all sorts of legs, feet and materials. They had all sorts of motors and attachments. They tested different types of sensing options and controllers.
Some of these early prototypes resembled spiders with multiple legs, other looked more like humans with two legs, others had wheels like cars and some looked like tractors with caterpillar tracks. This was the fun part of building robots.
It was also the laboratory.