Air Force

Pipe crawler robot

A robot that can climb vertically, navigate tight bends, and operate autonomously


A now-common use for robots is in pipe inspection where they identify maintenance problems unobservable to humans.

Commercially available pipe crawlers are submersible, autonomous or tethered, and equipped with a variety of sensors such as a camera, vapor sensors, and positioning sensors. But, to their disadvantage, most are wheeled and struggle to progress when traveling against a high-viscosity stream flow inside a sewer or water pipe or adapt to pipe diameter changes.

Air Force engineers have developed a pipe crawler robot that does not use wheels. Instead, it travels using a combination of expandable and collapsible legs powered by a built-in motor that grip the walls of the pipe and push it forward. This allows the crawler to move vertically and maneuver through 180-degree turns and S-bends.

The legged design, as opposed to wheeled pipe crawlers or pneumatically actuated inchworm-like approach, gives the pipe crawler a slim profile that moves smoothly against a current. And the smaller surface area enables it to adequately address variable pipe diameters and pass through or around obstacles.

The low profile and ability to navigate pipes of varying diameter make it ideal for use in navigating compromised conduits. In addition to inspections, the Air Force envisions the robotic pipe crawler being used by emergency personnel to communicate with people trapped in collapsed buildings, mine shafts, or underground facilities.

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