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Geotechnical Asset Management and Survey with Four-Legged Robot

Spot robot is being used by the National Highways development centre in Moreton-in-Marsh, Cotswolds, for trials and testing its capability to carry out remote inspections of highway geotechnical assets.

In today’s era of technological advancement, the integration of robotics is revolutionising traditional methodologies across various industries. National Highways, the steward of the United Kingdom’s strategic road network, is at the forefront of this transformation. With the aim of enhancing efficiency, safety, and data accuracy in geotechnical asset management, the organisation has embarked on a pioneering trial employing Spot, a cutting-edge robotic dog developed by Boston Dynamics. This article delves into the intricacies of National Highways’ ambitious endeavour, focusing on the capabilities, functionalities, and implications of Spot robot in reshaping infrastructure management practices.

Traditional Inspection Methods and Challenges

Traditionally, geotechnical asset inspection involves manual surveys conducted by two inspectors, one stationed atop a slope, while the other positioned at the bottom. However, this approach presented numerous challenges, including accessibility issues, safety hazards, and resource-intensive processes. Moreover, as infrastructure assets age, they become more susceptible to deterioration, therefore the need for more robust inspection methodologies becomes increasingly evident.

The Genesis of Innovation: National Highways’ Vision for Change

In response to the limitations of traditional inspection methods, National Highways recognized the imperative of embracing technological innovation to enhance asset management practices. With a vision of leveraging cutting-edge technology to improve efficiency and safety, the organisation embarked on a journey to integrate robotics into its inspection framework. Spot, a four-legged robot emerged as a promising solution to spearhead this transformative initiative.

 L-R: Bam survey and technology product manager Callum Whitfield; National Highways’ South West engineering team manager Guy Swains; Aecom associate director of ground engineering James Codd; and National Highways principal engineer David Hayward

Advantages and Applications of Spot Robot

Spot, developed by Boston Dynamics, represents the pinnacle of robotic engineering, combining advanced mobility, agility, and sensor capabilities. Resembling a four-legged canine, Spot’s design allows for unparalleled manoeuvrability across diverse terrain types, ranging from steep embankments to rugged landscapes. Equipped with an array of sensors, including cameras, LiDAR, and depth sensors, the robot possesses the ability to capture high-resolution imagery and environmental data with precision and accuracy.

Advantages of Spot Robot:

  • Enhanced Safety: Remote operation capabilities minimise the need for personnel to be in close proximity to hazardous environments, reducing the risk of accidents and injuries.
  • Versatility: Agile and adaptable design enables it to traverse diverse terrain types, including steep embankments, rugged landscapes, and confined spaces.
  • Precise Data Capture: Equipped with a suite of sensors and depth sensors, it can capture high-resolution imagery and environmental data with precision and accuracy.
  • Remote Operation: Can be controlled and monitored remotely, allowing for targeted inspections and data collection from a safe distance.
  • Autonomy Features: Autonomy features enable it to navigate predefined routes and perform routine inspections autonomously, enhancing operational efficiency.

Applications of Spot Robot:

  • Geotechnical Asset Management: Inspections of embankments, slopes, and subterranean structures, facilitating condition assessments and defect identification in geotechnical assets.
  • Infrastructure Monitoring: Well-suited for monitoring infrastructure assets such as bridges, tunnels, and dams for signs of deterioration or structural issues.
  • Environmental Monitoring: Can be deployed in environmentally sensitive areas to monitor vegetation, wildlife, and habitat conditions, providing valuable data for conservation efforts.
  • Emergency Response: Ideal for use in emergency response scenarios, such as search and rescue missions in disaster-stricken areas.
  • Industrial Applications: Can be utilised for site inspection, inventory management, and equipment monitoring, improving operational efficiency and worker safety.

Objectives of the Trial: Enhancing Safety, Efficiency, and Data Quality

The primary objectives of National Highways’ trial with Spot robot were multifaceted. Firstly, the organisation sought to evaluate Spot’s capability to conduct remote inspections of geotechnical assets, thereby minimising the need for manual surveys and mitigating associated safety risks. Additionally, the trial aimed to assess Spot’s potential to enhance data accuracy and quality, enabling more informed decision-making in asset management processes. By focusing on safety enhancement and operational efficiency, National Highways aimed to redefine industry standards and pave the way for a more resilient and sustainable infrastructure network.

Spot Robot going through initial trials

Methodologies: From Trial Design to Implementation

The live trials with the robotic device took place on an embankment by St Georges railway bridge along the M5 motorway in mid-January. The trial was meticulously designed and executed to ensure robustness and reliability. 

Site selection criteria were carefully considered to encompass a diverse range of terrain types, allowing for comprehensive testing of Spot’s capabilities. Sensor deployment protocols were optimised to maximise data collection efficiency while maintaining adherence to industry standards, such as the CS 641 Managing the maintenance of highway geotechnical assets standard. Throughout the trial, emphasis was placed on iterative testing and refinement, enabling continuous improvement and optimization of Spot’s performance in real-world scenarios.

Challenges and Limitations:

Despite its remarkable capabilities, Spot is not without its challenges and limitations. Its adaptability to rapidly changing terrains may be limited, particularly in environments with dynamic or unpredictable conditions. Additionally, the integration of robotics into existing workflows may require adjustments to operational protocols and training requirements for personnel. Addressing these challenges will be critical in maximizing the effectiveness and adoption of Spot robot in geotechnical asset management.

Way Forward

Trials served as a crucial step in defining Spot’s operational boundaries and identifying suitable deployment sites. Moving forward, the team plans to continue exploring robotics in geotechnical surveys. This ongoing exploration will inform the integration of such technologies into future operational workflows.

Conclusion:

National Highways’ trial with Spot robot exemplifies the commitment to embracing technological innovation and driving positive change in infrastructure management. Through meticulous planning, rigorous testing, and a relentless pursuit of excellence, National Highways has demonstrated the transformative potential of robotics in enhancing safety, efficiency, and data accuracy in geotechnical asset management. As the organisation continues to explore and refine robotic technologies, the future holds immense promise for the evolution of infrastructure management practices, paving the way for a more resilient, sustainable, and technologically advanced infrastructure network.

References- geplus.co.uk, highways-news.com

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