Researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have created a robot that can explore ducts.
Duct cleaning robots are actually a vital tool these days. According to the World Health Organization, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. Indoor air is much more polluted than outdoor air and 30% of U.S. buildings experience air quality problems.
The duct-exploring robot was developed on the principle of tensegrity, a structural design paradigm that combines components under pure tension and pure compression to make mass efficient, accurately controllable structures.
“One really exciting thing about being here is that there is a big administrative push to get new faculty in robotics,” says Jeffrey Friesen, a Ph. D. student that worked on the project. “As the years progress, it’s only going to get better. There is going to be a lot of innovative research coming out of this university.”
Tensegrity robots, like DucTT, the one developed by the UCSD researchers, are light and flexible, built from rigid aluminum tubes and space-age cables that keep their structure together. The researchers opted to use aluminum over 3D-printed materials to make the robot more resilient.
The robot provides an extensive range of motion with a small number of actuators. The batteries, electronics, motors, and strain gauges are all embedded within the tubes of the structure to shield them from the gas or liquid that may be flowing within the duct during the inspection.
DucTT moves similarly to an inchworm, along the length of ducts or tubes and can accurately navigate the intersection of two or more ducts. Much of the volume of the bars is devoted to the batteries themselves so DucTT can run for up to six hours continuously, untethered, on a single charge.
According to UCSD, air conditioning and heating systems are the lead contributors to these air quality problems in commercial settings. People working in buildings where these systems have never been cleaned are 60% more likely to experience respiratory problems.
Current duct-cleaning systems in place are limited to small, remote-controlled vehicles that look like miniature street sweepers, unable to access many remote parts of air conditioning and heating systems. The team designed DucTT to specifically address this need.
To contact the author of this article, email email@example.com