The Robots Who Fixed the City

A growing number of tech companies are stepping up to address a big, obvious problem: Trillions of dollars worth of bridges, tunnels, and plant buildings everywhere are facing aging. The most important infrastructure – from pipelines and industrial plants to ships and drawbridges – is slowly falling apart, prompting the American Society of Civil Engineers to give the country’s infrastructure only a “C-” grade in its latest report. ” grade in its latest report.
The reasons are manifold. Our planet is covered in a relentless mixture of liquids and gases that are forever trying to dismantle us and everything we’ve built at the atomic level. Oxygen keeps us alive, but it is also very reactive and prone to chemical reactions with metals and most other things needed for construction. This results in problems such as rust, oxidized protective coatings, and objects catching fire.
In addition, waves, wind, and seasonal thermal expansion and contraction can erode and damage steel and concrete. This can have devastating consequences, and just hours before President Joe Biden was scheduled to deliver a speech in Pittsburgh on the state of the nation’s infrastructure, an apartment building collapsed in Surfside, Florida, and a bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh. Pipes, containment, I-beams, and moving parts all failed, eventually returning to their original, basic state. Climate change and an increasing number of extreme weather events are accelerating this process. As author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, perhaps the biggest challenge is that “everyone wants to build something, but no one wants to maintain it”.
1. Let the robots do it
On the east bank of the Mississippi River, 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Shell U.S.A. has operated the Geismar Chemical Plant since 1967. There, the company produces industrial chemicals used in synthetic fabrics, detergents, plastic containers, and other products.
Until recently, Shell had to completely shut down the affected area of the plant due to the need to inspect the facilities at the old chemical plant. The company then had workers risk their lives climbing all over the huge plant to inspect every inch. Today, according to Steven Treviño, Shell’s robotics engineer, Shell can keep the plant running and keep maintenance crews on the ground at a safe distance because they can maneuver the wall-climbing robots to inspect steel tanks and the like with millimeter resolution. With the help of a variety of sensors, the robots can simultaneously probe for the presence of corrosion and cracks. This helps the team to shorten the list of things that have to be dealt with when the plant is completely shut down. The magnetic wall-climbing robot being used by Shell is produced by Pittsburgh-based startup Gecko Robotics. After testing the Gecko robots at the Geismar plant, Shell plans to apply them to offshore facilities.

Treviño says of his team of inspection and maintenance technicians, “Think of us as the doctors of the site and the equipment. Just like a doctor, we perform a non-destructive test on a patient and then decide what to do next – do we do nothing, or do we prescribe something?” Shell’s approach to keeping its vast infrastructure up and running reflects a broader trend in the maintenance of various military and civilian infrastructures. Adam Middleton, managing director of Siemens Energy, says the entire inspection and maintenance industry is gradually transforming itself from following a set schedule to utilizing a whole new set of tools to figure out ahead of time what needs to be repaired. These tools, Treviño says, include robots that fly, walk, swim, and crawl and a variety of new sensors, as well as artificial intelligence technology that processes the data collected by the sensors and makes predictions based on it.
Adam Bry, CEO of Skydio, a drone company headquartered in San Mateo, California, said, “I think one of the things that’s fascinating is that there’s a lot of infrastructure that we rely on to make our world work that digital hasn’t yet touched.” Skydio recently shut down its consumer drone business to focus on serving enterprise customers. Those customers include more than 80 utilities, transportation agencies, and oil and gas companies (including Shell U.S.) in 35 states across the United States. They all use Skydio’s drones to conduct regular inspections of parts of their critical infrastructure, such as substations, transmission lines, bridges, plants, and more.

For drones, these types of inspections are automated visual inspections using the cameras on our phones. The images can be fed into a machine learning system (also known as Artificial Intelligence), which, after training, can be used to detect damage. At the same time, these drones are able to accurately map the surface of an object in three dimensions. The result is an ultra-realistic model that humans can “inspect” from the comfort of their offices, while the AI can flag any suspicious areas. Treviño says the shift is from time-based inspections to risk-based inspections, which Bry describes as a shift to condition-based maintenance. No matter how you describe it, he adds, “it’s about understanding the condition of the asset, not about maintaining it according to a schedule.”
2. nature is cruel
Unlike fintech, real estate tech, and all the other high-profile niche “techs,” “maintenance tech” isn’t exactly a highly touted buzzword at the moment. Perhaps it should be trumpeted more often, given its importance to our daily lives.
Over the past 50 years, there has been a great deal of research into the direct costs of corrosion. The most recent study was in 2013, but these studies always come up with the same figure – 3% to 4% of GDP. Other studies estimate that the total cost of corrosion is about twice that figure when indirect costs are included. Globally, that means corrosion costs humanity trillions of dollars a year.
Jake Loosararian, CEO of Gecko Robotics, says, “There are hundreds of types of corrosion, and we’ve been developing technology and software to recognize the types of damage that are occurring.” Gecko started out as a robotics company but has since expanded to develop software to process the data collected by its robots. The startup built a system that is currently used to track more than 60,000 assets around the world, including power plants, pipelines, refineries, dams, Navy ships, and other military equipment.
3. Powerful robots are getting smaller
Speaking of inspections, Skydio’s Bry says, “The data you need is often right in front of you, it’s just hard to collect.” The job of collecting that data is increasingly falling to robots that can climb, fly, and swim, such as Gecko Robotics’ magnetic wall-climbing robots and Skydio’s small, automated drones that can fly anywhere. Underwater robotics has undergone a similar evolution – only the underwater environment is more challenging in some ways.
VideoRay has been building underwater robots for more than 20 years, says Brad Clause, an executive at VideoRay. In an underwater environment, satellite communications are not possible without the Global Positioning System (GPS). As a result, VideoRay has spent decades conducting research in this area to develop technologies that support underwater operations and can replace legacy technologies. Some of the research was funded by the U.S. Navy, but most of it was funded by the largest customer for telehandling tools, the offshore oil industry.
For navigation, there are underwater acoustic positioning technologies similar to terrestrial transponders. For communications, there are acoustic modems. For detecting cracks and corrosion, remotely operated robots can rely on cameras and ultrasonic thickness sensors – but only if the robot is strong enough to withstand strong currents and the navigation is precise enough to get as close as possible to the target object. Corrosion in underwater environments is much faster than inland environments – on land, inspectors worry about paint damage, whereas in water they look at the thickness of structures to determine how quickly they are dissolving.
VideoRay’s latest generation of remote-controlled robots weighs 38 pounds (about 34.5 kg) and can be carried by one person. This allows it to be transported anywhere quickly, unlike older robots that can weigh tons and require large teams of support personnel, cranes, and boats to get around. the Skydio drone is also very small – weighing less than 3 pounds (~2.7 pounds) and measuring less than 2 feet (~60.1 centimeters) wide. The small size is critical to the design, and being small enough, they are able to fly nimbly both indoors and outdoors, aiming their cameras at the buildings to be inspected. “Our technology is the first step towards digitization,” says Skydio’s Bry, “Drones are a very powerful tool in inspecting objects because they can reach almost anywhere.”
On the ground robot side, robots such as ANYmal, a quadrupedal robot from Zurich-based company Anybotics, have a dog-inspired design that is similar in functionality to a roughly medium-sized dog, and they can go wherever people can go – including up and down stairs. With cameras, lasers, heat sensors, and even an electronic “nose,” they can automatically inspect industrial facilities.
In addition, the robot invented by Invert Robotics weighs less than 11 pounds (about 10 pounds), is the size of a large briefcase, and can be attached to virtually any smooth surface using miniature suction cups, like those found on the arms of an octopus. Therefore, it is able to reach the pharmaceutical plant reaction tanks inside, outside the aircraft, and in other places, so as to corrosion, chemical contamination, and biological contamination of the subtle inspection.
4. Robot Riveter
Once the problem has been assessed, robots can increasingly take on the restoration work that humans once did. underwater robots made by Greensea can scrub the bottom of a ship to prevent the buildup of barnacles, tubeworms, and other slime (otherwise known as “fouling”) that can force a ship to consume up to 20 percent more fuel to reach its destination. reach its destination. Typically, it takes a team of human divers to clean a ship – and if it’s in particularly bad shape, a dry dock.
Greensea doesn’t sell the robots, but rather offers a paid service to ensure that its customers get their vessels cleaned, said Ben Kinnaman, Greensea’s CEO. Customers can choose to bring the robots on board or have them cleaned when they come into port, and Greensea explains that an overlapping ecosystem of businesses has formed around the use of robots for inspections and software to process the results. In addition to the robots that scrub ships’ hulls, the company has also developed the Opensea software platform. The Opensea software is the software that runs VideoRay’s underwater robots, Kinnaman says, and it’s also used in underwater robots from dozens of other manufacturers.
5. The hardest thing to do is wait
For energy companies, power outages cost billions of dollars in lost revenue and additional costs each year. In such cases, upgrading a company’s inspection and maintenance systems can pay for itself very quickly indeed, according to Siemens Energy’s Middleton. The problem, however, is that corporations, governments, and militaries with large infrastructures already have their own maintenance systems. These systems rely on people who are used to doing things a certain way,” Middleton says, “and frankly, the biggest obstacle to the spread of this type of robotics is probably people. For example, if people feel that this technology impinges on their professional strengths, it could be very difficult to get them to understand and appreciate it.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top