Robot explores gas mains

Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers have developed a remote-controlled, untethered, wireless prototype crawling robot, designed to inspect underground gas mains.

And already, Consolidated Edison of New York (Con Ed) has deployed the robot in Yonkers to inspect hundreds of feet of 8-inch-diametre, live, cast-iron gas main that were originally installed in 1890.

Known as Explorer, the robot 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.

The robot itself 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 control van at the excavation site. It can travel great distances from its point of entry into the pipeline – its range is exclusively determined by its wireless communication range and battery power.

The Explorer project was jointly funded by the research and development committee of the Northeast Gas Association (NGA) and the US DoE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL)’s Strategic Center for Natural Gas Infrastructure in Morgantown, WVA, with kick-off seed funding from NASA and NGA.

“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 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.