Bridge cleaning robots a world-first

Sydney Harbour Bridge

University of Technology Sydney (UTS) researchers are proud of the fact that a robot they created is busy at work blast-cleaning the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The autonomous robot is a world-first – it can operate in unstructured, unknown or partially unknown, complex environments. It was created through a partnership between UTS and the New South Wales (NSW) Government’s Roads and Maritime Services agency.

The collaboration began in 2006 when NSW Roads and Maritime Services approached UTS, looking for a safer and less onerous way to undertake the routine grit-blasting cleaning operations that are an integral part of steel bridge maintenance. The agency wanted to reduce its workers’ exposure to the safety hazards of manual bridge cleaning.

The request for help sparked a seven-year research project, involving robotics researchers from the UTS Centre for Autonomous Systems and undergraduate engineering and industrial design students.

By 2013 the research team had developed a lightweight robot and two fully operational prototype grit-blasting robots were at work and being tested on the Harbour Bridge.

The robots were able to autonomously sense and map a steel structure and then plan a suitable collision-free, grit-blasting pathway. They were fast, accurate and most importantly reduced workers’ exposure to the dangerous blasting zone environment.

“My team is very proud of the outcome of this robotics project because of the real outcomes generated by our research,” says Professor Dikai Liu, director of the UTS Centre for Autonomous Systems.

“I am very happy about the relationships we developed and the focus of the collaboration because while UTS was doing fundamental research on the theoretical aspects of robotics, our research needed to be evaluated and verified in the real world.

“Roads and Maritime Services provided a great opportunity for us to do this, and we’ve been able to develop and test a robot, and prove that our research was practically useful.”

Commercial outcomes

bridge cleaning robotTwo of the robots are now being used extensively on the Harbour Bridge and NSW Roads and Maritime Services operating assets and security manager, Phil Brooks, says the robotic grit-blasting system is one of his agency's “best achievements”.

The pioneering technology has now been commercialised to tap into an estimated $1.2 billion global market in abrasive blasting.

UTS established the spin-off company Sabre Autonomous Solutions with major investment from the Australian company Burwell Technologies. Sabre is refining the robot’s unique capabilities, leveraging Burwell’s 40 years of experience as a leader in the abrasive blasting industry, and has made sales into the United States.

With interest in the robots gaining momentum worldwide, Sabre has contracted research back to UTS to help with the next stage of the technology’s development—multi-robot collaboration and robotic inspection of blasting quality in real time.

The new robots have attracted national and international recognition. In 2013 the research team won two Engineering Excellence Awards Sydney and was a finalist inthe ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology, the Australian Engineering Excellence Awards and the International Federation of Robotics and Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers awards.

UTS, NSW Roads and Maritime Services, the Australian Research Council and Sabre Autonomous Solutions have funded the bridge cleaning robotics project.

To drive innovation and business growth, the Australian Government is supporting better links between research institutions and industry. The government’s annual National Survey of Research Commercialisation collects data on how Australia’s publicly funded research system collaborates with industry to transfer knowledge and commercialise research.

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