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Robot Detectives

Mechanical Engineering

LSBU holds an international reputation as a world leader in the use of robotics in non-destructive testing and developing intelligent robotic systems

Groundbreaking projects have ranged from building the world's first wall climbing robot to robots that work under water and oil. This has led to LSBU winning the Most Innovative Robot award three times from the international Industrial Robot journal and their being awarded the highly commended prize on numerous occasions.

Robots can climb walls

One team of students from LSBU's School of Engineering won the Industrial Robot Innovative Climbing Award and the BAE Systems second prize for developing a robot that can climb walls. To meet competition rules the robot had to be able to find the wall, transfer on to it and then climb to the top avoiding three obstacles placed randomly by the judges. The final obstacle was a centimetre high ridge which the robot had to climb over. Operators couldn't intervene once the robot was instructed to go.

The students designed and built the robot in about four months. It used permanent magnets to create the adhesion, an embedded computer to control two motors and found its way with infra-red sensors that identified its location, obstacles and side walls. It also incorporated gravity and tilt sensors to keep the robot moving straight up after going round the obstacles.

With the ability to climb walls, we can now send robots into areas where it might be unsafe for humans.

Dr Tariq Sattar, a robotics engineer at LSBU, believes this development could have huge significance. "While robots have been used in a number of environments for many years, their capabilities have been limited. With the ability to climb walls, we can now send them into areas where it might be unsafe for humans."

This could include searching partially collapsed structures following earthquakes or other disasters, or for inspecting the condition of chemical plants or nuclear reactors. Some of the robots use powerful magnets to climb steel walls whereas others use vacuums to scale non-magnetic walls. The researchers believe this technology could have applications in non-destructive testing, surveillance and maintenance situations.

Pioneering non-destructive testing

Another project is being worked on by PhD student Tejas Petal and LSBU Robotics expert Dr Tariq Sattar. They are designing and developing a 'swarm' of robots to carry out Non-destructive testing (NDT) on large steel plates used in hazardous and non-hazardous environments such as the floor of oil tanks or a ship's hull.

The robots test for corrosion and weld defects. A central control system inside a lead robot allows a group of other mobile robots, connected by physical link sensors, to work co-operatively and function as a single machine.

For very large structures, a team of robots equipped with ultrasound probes sense rotations and motions of neighbouring robots and enables the group to function together in a global task. Each robot is wirelessly controlled with sonar sensors to build up a map of its surroundings. At the moment, up to 30 robots work with one lead.

Again, the implications from these developments could be vast. "Disasters, such as the collapse of an oil storage tank can not only be a major pollution crisis but also take lives. Mandatory inspections of structures are critical and, if done by people, can take months and be very expensive."

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