January 25, 2023

In the United States, the average age of a bridge is 44 years. Sewage pipes are, on average, 45 years old; dams and levees more than 50 years old. 

Aging infrastructure is a global phenomenon, one that requires significant resources to inspect and maintain. And sometimes, the areas under inspection are dangerous or inaccessible to humans. 

Increasingly, robots are performing these inspections.

High voltage power lines, for example, have traditionally been inspected by humans that accessed them via helicopter. But specialized robots that can traverse these environments have been around for more than a decade. 

We asked several IEEE Impact Creators about the current state of robotics in infrastructure assessment. 

1. Robotics for inspection is in its infancy.

“The use of robots in well-defined and predictable environments like factories has been well established for many years. But robots often need to be deployed in extreme environments that have specific design demands.” 
Jayakrishnan Thrivikaman Nair,  IEEE Member 

2. New advancements in sensors and machine learning are making robots more autonomous. 

“This increases safety, enables a broader network of zones to be addressed in a shorter period of time, even autonomously, and potentially at any time an urgent inspection may be required.”  
Eleanor Watson, IEEE Member 

3. Robots come in all shapes and sizes – depending on the task. 

“Due to the diversity and complexity of different industries and inspection tasks, there doesn’t seem to exist dominant form factors for these robots yet. However, the key technologies such as motion control, localization, sensor and actuator. We will likely see highly customizable and modularized solutions for inspection robots soon.”
Guoliang Xing, IEEE Fellow 

4. They see things humans can’t. 

“New techniques such as sensor fusion enable multiple wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum to be spliced together to provide a more cohesive picture of a situation. Infrared might tell you one thing, and UV another. Moreover, the backscattering of radio waves can allow one to detect objects and movement even behind walls.”
– Eleanor Watson,  IEEE Member

5. They can outperform humans in some tasks …

“In highly specialized sectors, like metal fatigue inspection, which largely relies on equipment in the first place, robots can be more accurate and more comprehensive.”
Guoliang Xing, IEEE Fellow

6. … but don’t count humans out yet.

“Comparing humans and robots is a bit like comparing birds and airplanes. They can both perform similar functions, but in different ways, with differing constraints. Humans have a tremendous advantage in dexterity, flexibility towards different tasks, and modest logistical requirements. Robots are perfect for routine or dull work in dangerous environments,  and with predictable opportunities to recharge and a non-urgent schedule.”
 Eleanor Watson, IEEE Member

7. And humans and robots work well together. 

“Inspection tasks are done as a team. The robot acquires the data, and humans report on the acquired data.”
Paulo Drews Jr., IEEE Senior member

8. They’re already building infrastructure, but they’ll be printing it in the future. 

“Assembly, welding and material-handling robots have been widely used for construction purposes for many decades. Whereas during the last decade, robots that are capable of bricklaying, tile laying, plastering, wall painting etc., are increasingly used. The latest trend is using huge 3D printing robots for construction purposes. Due to the quick set-up time and scalability, these types of robots will undoubtedly revolutionize the construction industry in the near future”. 
Jayakrishnan Thrivikaman Nair, IEEE member

Learn More: Robotics has a large role to play in the fight against climate change. Hear some of the applications of robotics in agriculture, forestry management, and oceanography in this panel hosted by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society


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