U. Washington robot to help survey damaged underground cables

Published 16 January 2007

Drone is able to traverse cables within pipes and tunnels; neoprene wheels and a gyroscope help it navigate while three onboard sensors look for signs of wear and tear

Serious readers of HSDW know of our mania for UAVs. What they may not know, however, is that we have an equal affection for robots. Sadly, relevant stories rarely come down the pike — we hope readers in the robotics business will keep us informed if we are missing something — and so we are left indulging our interest in unmanned, intelligent mechanical devices by reporting on the biggest, the fastest, and the most armored airborne drone. No more, we say. Today there is news of a fascinating new robot that crawls among underground cabling to detect and diagnose failure. This is important, not just for the interesting technology that is involved, but because it promises to cut back on power failures and ensure that underground lines are tough enough to withstand any large disruption — an earthquake, say, or a massive nearby explosion.

Monitoring cable systems is one of the holy grails of the electricity industry,” said Don Von Dollen of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “When you get a cable failure, it’s a real pain to find it, dig it up, and fix it. Coming up with good diagnostics has been a longtime challenge, and it’s a tough nut to crack.”

The robot, developed by engineers at the University of Washington (UW, pronounced “U-Dub”) is intended to replace the traditional diagnostic method known as the high-potential test. “You basically disconnect the cable and send a big voltage spike across it,” Von Dollen said. “If there are any problems, this is going to cause the cable to fail.”

The UW robot avoids all of these problems by “autonomously traversing underground cables buried in pipes and tunnels.” (Only ten percent of cables are so situated, but it is those that often cause the most problems.) Sitting atop neoprene wheels and powered by a small battery pack, the robot “hugs” the cable while three onboard sensors go to work searching for wear and tear. In order to better navigate the nooks and crannies, the unnamed robot uses a gyroscope to help maintain its balance and sports stabilizing arms to help right it if it slides off track.

-read more in Kate Greene’s Technology Review report