A U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) team is designing robotic systems to keep humans out of harm’s way.
Sounding more like the plot of an action movie than a research and development project, a robotic system known as Dambot takes the human element out of a dangerous but necessary U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintenance task. The cutting-edge technology has already been successfully tested and stands poised to change the course of closure gate assessments, while also safeguarding USACE team members.
“The Dambot is a tele-operated robotic platform that aids our dam inspection personnel with assessment of earth dam outlet works,” said Principal Investigator Dr. Anton Netchaev, a research computational scientist in the Information Technology Laboratory (ITL). “In the United States, over half of our dams are beyond their expected design life and require regular inspections and maintenance to continue operating. Placing inspection personnel inside a facility’s outlet conduit presents unacceptable risk and in some cases, does not comply with current safety requirements.”
Utilizing a gate to control water levels, earth dams feature an outlet works structure that includes a tunnel that can be up to half a mile long. Construction materials are vulnerable to corrosion and fatigue issues that may compromise the structural integrity of the system and put personnel entering the tunnel in jeopardy. USACE maintains these aging structures, many in unidentified or deteriorated conditions.
“Because of the age of the infrastructure, there is an unknown threat to humans entering the outlet works to inspect closure gates that can be several hundred meters down the conduit tunnel,” said Co-Principal Investigator Jordan Klein, a research computer engineer in ITL. “Our solution was the Dambot, which is designed to give inspection personnel a first look at the conditions inside the outlet works before exposing people to these unknown risks.”
The Dambot, a robotic platform carrying a variety of sensors such as high-resolution cameras and Lidar can create an extremely detailed model of the entire outlet works system. Typically, an inspection involves a human physically entering the tunnel to take photographs of concerning spots and document anomalies by hand. The Dambot allows for precise and repeatable inspections that can be viewed remotely, meaning inspectors can do their jobs from a safe distance.
“The impact of the Dambot is primarily the mitigation of risk to our dam inspectors by giving them the situational awareness to determine the safety of entering outlet works,” said Netchaev. “Additionally, the generated models can be compared for change detection and other structural health monitoring research applications.”
“ITL joined this effort because of our expertise in sensor and sensing system design,” added Klein. “We have and will continue to work closely with structural health monitoring efforts across the Corps of Engineers to deliver safe solutions.”
The first field test of the Dambot sensor suite was recently held at the outlet works at Blue Mountain Dam, Arkansas, and was a success. The cross-disciplinary team of engineers, scientists and technicians is now preparing for a second trip to test the Dambot tele-operation capability. The group also continues to collaborate closely with ERDC's Robotics for Engineer Operations program, which focuses on similar remote sensing capabilities for military operations, in the area of capability development.