Pipe-climbing robot

Independent Norwegian research laboratory SINTEF is developing a robot that will be able to climb vertically in gas, water and oil pipes, detecting leaks and monitoring their condition

Independent Norwegian research laboratory SINTEF is developing a robot that will be able to climb vertically in gas, water and oil pipes, detecting leaks and monitoring conditions as it moves along.

Using know-how garnered from previous SINTEF snake robots Anna Konda and AiKo, cybernetics and optical measurement scientists are designing the intelligent pipe inspection robot to move on wheels and be able to climb and navigate pipes down to 20cm in diameter.

Researcher Jens Thielemann at SINTEF ICT said: ‘We are currently developing the vision system than will enable the robot to navigate. In the meantime, we are using the Lego Mindstorm robot to collect the data to train the vision system. This Lego robot has a camera attached and moves around the pipe following a pre-programmed map. The next step will be to utilise the vision system as input to control the actual snake robot we are going to develop.’

The robot’s vision will be provided by an off the shelf time-of-flight camera which uses a measurement of the amount light is bent to give a bathymetric (depth measurement) chart of the pipe system.

‘Combined with our algorithms, the robot will be able to navigate and move forward on its own,’ said Thielemann. ‘The robot knows when a left or right turn is approaching and also contains a built-in path description detailing what tasks it should carry out in different situations.

‘Given our previous work on snake robots, we have become good at controlling mechanisms that are linked,’ said SINTEF cybernetics scientist Erik Kyrkjebø. ‘We now want to develop a robot with 10-11 joint modules, each with an identical pair of wheels cast in plastic. The weight must be well distributed between the joints. The robot will function as a train when operating horizontally, but will be able to climb too.’

When the robot enters a vertical pipe, it lifts its head into the pipe until it meets the pipe wall. It can then either move sideways with its abdomen against the pipe and twist itself upwards, or it can topple backwards and attach itself to the pipe wall, then roll upwards.

The researchers intend to test two of the 11 joint modules this month to verify the concept and they hope to demonstrate a prototype model by the end of the year. The final version of the robot will be constructed of aluminium and is planned to be 1.5m long.