When we talk about the three Ds of automation, the dull and dangerous bits are generally understood. Robotics can play a key role in getting humans out of harm’s way and replacing extremely boring, repetitive work. But what about the dirty part? As far as headlines go, I don’t know that I’ve written one that better fits the middle D.
Snake robotics are nothing new, of course. It’s a clever form factor capable of making tight squeezes that would be otherwise impossible for more conventional systems. Carnegie Mellon University, for one, has been developing them for a long time, as has NASA. This giant earthworm robot, meanwhile, actually started life as part of DARPA’s Underminer program designed to develop tunneling operations for the military.
Now under the GE umbrella, the robot carries the name Pipe-worm (Programmable Worm for Irregular Pipeline Exploration). It combines fluid-powered muscles with a system of cockroach-inspired whiskers that help it navigate through pipes. Using tactile feedback, it’s able to determine things like pipe diameter, joints and turns.
The robot was recently deployed at a GE research location, navigating through pipes without a significant impact on operations.
“This AI-enabled autonomous robot has the ability to inspect and potentially repair pipelines all on its own, breaking up the formation of solid waste masses like fatbergs that are an ongoing issue with many of our nation’s sewer systems,” says GE robot researcher Deepak Trivedi in a release. “We’ve added cockroach-like whiskers to its body that gives it greatly enhanced levels of perception to make sharp turns or negotiate its way through dark, unknown portions of a pipeline network.”
The company believes the robot could be deployed for all manner of subterranean inspection, from power plants to fiber optic cables.