Subterranean Drones Revolutionize Infrastructure Maintenance

A new generation of underground drones is disrupting a fast-paced market

  • Engineers at Switzerland-based Flyability have recently developed a collision-tolerant flying drone that can be deployed into confined spaces.
  • In September, the US Defense Advanced Research Agency selected seven teams to participate in the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge.
  • Flyability has joined the Challenge as part of Team CERBERUS

Drones have become fairly ubiquitous across infrastructure sectors. However, advances in subterranean drone technology are revolutionizing the ways in which inspections of critical infrastructure are conducted.

The engineers at Switzerland-based Flyability have recently developed a collision-tolerant flying drone that can be deployed into confined spaces. The drone is surrounded by a protective cage outfitted with high resolution and infrared cameras. When airborne, the platform can roll and bounce off of obstacles and obstructions without incurring damage.

The drone, known as Elios, carries an integrated payload of HD and thermal image recording equipment, onboard LEDs for navigation and inspection, and a carbon fiber structure that can tolerate collisions at up to four meters per second. The device’s HD camera is mounted on a rotatable head, which, according to the company, allows for a 130-degree horizontal field of view, and a 215-degree total field of view.  The thermal camera has a 56-degree horizontal field of view, and a 42-degree vertical field of view.

Elios, when in close contact with a surface, can record sub-millimeter images with a resolution of 0.2 mm/px. Those images or video can also be streamed to a pilot at a lower resolution.

In September, power generation engineers for US-based energy company Exelon PowerLabs deployed the drone to areas of their nuclear plants where radiation levels were too high for human inspection. Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Transportation last year leveraged the Elios platform to inspect the undersides of bridges and the interiors of highway box girders.   

Swimmers and crawlers

Subterranean drones come in a wide array of form factors to fit just about any inspection duty.

For example, system operators at Vancouver, Washington’s Clark County Utilities (CCU) in 2017 used a swimming drone from Deep Trekker ROV to visually inspect the tank interior, record video of the inspection for future use, and push debris to the entry hatch for removal. By using the swimming drone, the utility was able to minimize the work needed to maintain proper system pressure during maintenance. The utility also eliminated the time and expense of having to drain the tank so that a diver could do the work.

Inspectors have also used drones designed to crawl through silt and sludge when they need to see inside smaller pipes. The devices, known as “crawlers,” feature tracked wheels or knobby off-road-looking tires that allow them to move throughout the pipe freely and use a payload of cameras to check for cracks in the system or inspect welds.

Notably, some crawlers can also be outfitted to assist repairs such as clearing debris, as well as assembling and fitting pipe. Companies like Deep Trekker and Optical Metrology Services (OMS) offer crawlers for an array of subterranean needs which can find their way past potential obstructions in uneven areas of corrosion, T-sections, vertical sections and bends.

Drones are also easily transported and quickly deployed. Moreover, while each type of drone serves its own unique purpose, they often, help engineers keep operation times down and ease the financial pressure resulting from having systems offline.

The future of subterranean drones

Swimmers and crawlers are the most traditional solutions for inspection needs in use today; but as the Elios platform shows, drone technology is developing rapidly.

In September, the US Defense Advanced Research Agency selected seven teams to participate in the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge. Flyability has joined the Challenge as part of Team CERBERUS. The team is led by University of Nevada, Reno, along with international partners including ETH Zurich, University of California, Berkeley, and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Other competing teams according to the agency are:

  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia
  • iRobot Defense Holdings, Inc. dba Endeavor Robotics
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
  • University of Nevada, Reno
  • University of Pennsylvania

The SubT Challenge will explore new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, search, and exploit complex underground environments, according to DARPA. Those environments include human-made tunnel systems, urban underground, and natural cave networks. The winning team will receive a total $3 million in prize money.

The challenge will take place over the next couple of years, according to a DARPA spokesperson. The competitors will, in late summer/early fall 2019, demonstrate the drones’ physical systems as part of the first circuit. In a second circuit scheduled for 2020, they will develop software and algorithms for operation in simulated environments. A final event in which the drones will compete against each other in all three subdomains is anticipated in fall 2021.

The competition is intended to push the boundaries of underground drone capabilities to their current limits. But, to have any success, the teams will need to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence technology, interoperability of automated systems, and overcome many issues yet to be anticipated.

While many of these concepts are still in their infancy, the rate of development will certainly bring these new technologies to the infrastructure sector in the near future.

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