Modular platforms for advanced inspection, locomotion, and manipulation


Robots can provide remote access, manipulation, and inspection capabilities to augment human workers and improve safety in potentially dangerous decommissioning, radioactive waste management, and emergency response operations. However, such activities may require navigating challenging and unstructured environments, such as those with uneven terrain, obstacles, or loose debris. This remains a difficult task, even for modern robots. What’s more, a robot’s physical design can inhibit it from accessing hard-to-reach areas such as the tight spaces around, underneath, or inside piping and equipment. To address these challenges, we have developed a series of physically robust hardware modules that can be configured into a variety of robot morphologies, specialized to support different operational needs. Each hardware module consists of a number of onboard sensors and a high performance actuator with a series elastic element to sense and control interaction forces for improved locomotion and manipulation. Using this hardware, we have designed several robotic platforms that support the access, manipulation, and inspection requirements of decommissioning and radioactive waste management. To highlight current capabilities and potential opportunities for technological improvement, we present the outcomes from field demonstrations of our modular platforms at the Office of Environmental Management’s Science of Safety Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant Robotics Challenge. Specifically, results include a serpentine robot climbing vertical structures such as pipes, posts, and supports to demonstrate advanced inspection. Additionally, we discuss field trials of a similar modular configuration that yields a highly dexterous manipulator arm and camera system capable of adding manipulation and inspection functionality to existing structures. Results are presented from inspection tasks in which the manipulator is installed on another mobile robotic platform. Finally, we show our hardware modules can be reconfigured into platforms capable of withstanding significant impacts and of alternative means of locomotion, as may be required to cross terrain too challenging for traditional wheeled robots. Results describe the performance of a hexapod robot that uses proprioceptive feedback to locomote in outdoor trials reminiscent of emergency response conditions.

Waste Management Symposium