Robot tunnel inspector set to reduce transport delays

Spanish researchers have designed a robot for inspecting vehicle tunnels that could prevent the need for closures.

The ROBINSPECT system developed at the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) comprises a small, tractor-like vehicle with a crane and a robotic arm equipped with an array of sensors for inspecting the tunnels.

The robot’s designers claim it would speed up assessments and improve their accuracy by replacing human inspectors with a system that can detect tiny fissures and deformities in a tunnel’s structure that are not visible to the eye.

‘The automated ROBINSPECT system allows tunnel inspection to be carried out automatically without stopping traffic,’ said project lead Prof Carlos Balaguer of UC3M’s department of systems engineering and automation.

The robot’s crane and arm will enable it to carry out inspections from a distance of five metres. ‘This will be equipped with an extensive sensorial system (vision, ultrasound and tactile) and will provide the precision and intelligent movement that will be needed in order to carry out inspections in tunnels,’ said Juan Víctores of UC3M’s Robotics Lab.

The robot design should enable it to automatically analyze possible defects in the tunnel surface, measure the radial deformities of the transversal section of the tunnels, the distance between parallel cracks and detect open joints.

The team hope to have a prototype robot ready by the end of 2014 and plan to test it in the London Underground, three subterranean sections of the Greek Egnatia highway and some experimental tunnels of the VSH in Switzerland.

‘The final demonstrators of the project will be mostly highway tunnels, which would make the tunnels of the M-30 in Madrid a good place to do the final testing of the system,’ said Víctores, adding that the device will also be able to detect defects in subway tunnels.

The researchers say the key to the project lies in integrating recent advances in intelligent robot control, sensor technology and artificial vision with learning.

ROBINSPECT (ROBotic System with Intelligent Vision and Control for Tunnel Structural INSPECTion and Evaluation) is a €5m (£4.2m), three-year project funded by the EU under the FP7 programme.