To improve drone navigation technology, a team of University of Georgia researchers looked to bats for inspiration.
Because temperature in power plants can surge up to a thousand degrees Celsius, power plants undergo considerable wear and tear that requires inspection every four to five months.
Normally inspectors have to climb scaffolds and inspect every spot meticulously, a tedious task that could take them at least one month to finish in a “dark, six to seven floor-high oven,” said Zion Tse, founder of the Medical Robotics Lab and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Engineering at UGA.
So UGA researchers at the Medical Robotics Lab developed a sonar navigation system for drones to improve the safety and efficiency of power plant inspections for the Southern Company – parent company of Southern Power.
The research team is the first to apply sonar technology to indoor drone navigation and for power facility inspection. The team includes Tse and his two graduate research assistants, Stan Gregory and Kevin Wu.
The team’s goal was to develop a navigation system that could allow drones to replace manual work in inspections. But the development process was not without challenges.
“The most difficult hurdle we faced was developing technology that could provide reliable and accurate signals inside the harsh environment of the heat recovery steam generator,” Gregory said. “There is a lot of electromagnetic and material interference that occurs, which makes technologies like GPS and some indoor navigation techniques difficult to use.”
Tse’s team eventually turned to sonar technology because of the conditions within power plants.
“It is based on how bats navigate in a cave,” Tse said.
The team developed a drone with a 360-degree rotatable scanner sending ultrasound beams to the walls that could reflect pulse signals back to the sensor, allowing the team to map the interiors of the steam rooms accurately, Tse said.
“With the use of our drone, inspection can be done within a day. It can increase the efficiency of the room since it doesn’t have to shut down, and it saves lots of money,” he said.
Though Tse’s specialization is medical robotics, he is interested in projects that address public interest as well. He said when he moved to Georgia in 2012, he realized there were a lot of local needs that robotic scientists could solve.
“We have a team of students trying to push the boundary of robotics technology, so whatever we can use robotics to solve, we will go for it,” Tse said.
Tse said he was inspired by a college classmate who had a vision for developing camera drones and eventually went on to become a billionaire because of his business’ success.
“It made me believe that it’s very important for academics to go outside our lab to translate and commercialize our technology, because that’s the way we can make a larger impact to the society,” Tse said.