The robot making life easier for Harbour Bridge workers

Some of Sydney’s most innovative thinkers – with a bit of help from a humble worm – have created a futuristic solution to an age-old problem, improving safety and winning awards in the process.

Like us, bridges have life expectancies. And just like our doctors, there are inspectors that assess the condition of the frames – inside and out – and determine what needs to be done to prolong life.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example, only had a predicted life span of 100 years. As it nears its use-by date, preserving this national icon becomes more and more important, but at what cost?

Until now, the best way to examine the bridge interior was to send a bridge inspector in. With chambers smaller than one metre tall and port holes measuring half of that, providing a thorough check-up could be quite an ordeal.

To avoid putting the squeeze on their workers, Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) enlisted some expert assistance from University of Technology Sydney (UTS) engineers. The challenge was to create something small enough to fit in the cramped spaces, agile enough to move through the steel passages and smart enough to record data and provide an accurate assessment of the bridge’s condition.

The result is CROC, an autonomous robot that could have a significant impact on the way steel bridges and other tight spaces are inspected.

Through an extensive process of consultation, trials, workshops and robotic engineering, UTS and RMS found CROC’s inspiration in an unlikely hero – the tiny inchworm.

The robot consists of a flexible body with a magnetic ‘foot’ at each end, along with a sensor package equipped with a camera and scanning equipment. To top it all off a ‘brain’ handles environmental and situation awareness, 3D map building, motion planning, collision avoidance, negotiation with edges/corners/rivets and data collection.

Once carried into position (on an operator’s back, no less) and deployed, inspectors can monitor the high definition feed to assess the bridge’s condition in safety and comfort.

It’s a high-tech solution to an age-old problem; one that has scored both parties recognition at the recent SafeWork NSW Awards. Against stiff competition RMS and UTS made an impression on the judges and went home with the award for best solution to an identified workplace health and safety issue category.

More importantly, it’s an invention that has the potential to improve safety not only for our local bridge inspectors but for workers around the world. Any workplace that needs to inspect cramped metal environments could benefit, such as ship holds, power plants and transmission towers.

See CROC in action, or visit the UTS Centre for Autonomous Systems YouTube channel for other fascinating innovations.

If you’ve developed a solution to a workplace safety issue (no matter how simple – intelligent robots not necessary) check out the 2016 SafeWork NSW Awards, opening soon.

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