Listen to this article
GE has upgraded its worm-like tunneling robot with highly-sensitive whiskers, similar to a cockroach’s whiskers, that give it enhanced perception capabilities for industrial pipeline monitoring, inspection and repair.
The Programmable Worm for Irregular Pipeline Exploration, or “Pipe-worm,” is GE’s latest adaptation of its autonomous giant earthworm-like robot. It was recently demonstrated at the company’s research campus in Niskayuna, were it traveled over 100 meters of pipe.
During Pipe-worm’s demonstration, it used its whiskers to navigate turns, as well as changes in the pipe’s diameter and in altitude. The robot uses artificial intelligence (AI) and the sensory data it gathers from its whiskers to automatically detect turns, elbows, junctions, pipe diameter and pipe orientation, among other things. The robot uses this information to create a map of the pipeline network in real time.
Cockroach whiskers are super sensitive, and are able to detect slight changes in the air and the environment around them.
“GE’s Pipe-worm takes the concept of the plumber’s drain snake to a whole new level,” Deepak Trivedi, a soft robotics expert at GE Research who led the development of Pipe-Worm, said. “This AI-enabled autonomous robot has the ability to inspect and potentially repair pipelines all on its own, breaking up the formation of solid waste masses like fatbergs that are an ongoing issue with many of our nation’s sewer systems. We’ve added cockroach-like whiskers to its body that gives it greatly enhanced levels of perception to make sharp turns or negotiate its way through dark, unknown portions of a pipeline network.”
Like the autonomous giant earthworm robot, Pipe-worm has powerful, fluid-powered muscles, which make it strong enough for heavy duty jobs.
In 2020, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Underminer program awarded GE Research with a 15-month, $2.5 million project to demonstrate the feasibility of a robot like Pipe-worm. The robot can also be used in support of military operations.
GE Research’s Robotics and Autonomy team are looking to apply Pipe-worm’s capabilities to other inspection and repair applications, like jet engine and power turbines in the aviation and power sectors. According to Trivedi, this application would involve a scaled-down version of the robot.