Beware the Fatbergs: GE Research Demonstrates Autonomous ‘Pipe Worm’ Robot Capable of Demolishing Solid and Hard Waste Dumps

  • Innovative, autonomous soft robot design adapted from the giant tunnel boring robot developed under the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) Underminer program
  • GE’s Pipe Worm (Programmable Worm for Irregular Pipeline Exploration) adds cockroach-like whiskers to his powerful fluid-powered muscles to give him extreme flexibility and perceptual abilities.
  • Ideal for stand-alone monitoring, inspection, repair and even mapping of oil and gas pipelines or underground municipal water and sewer systems.
  • The Pipe-worm is powerful enough to demolish solid waste deposits called “fatbergs”, which have become a problem in many municipal sewer systems.

NISKAYUNA, NY – March 8, 2022 – GE Research’s latest adaptation of its famous autonomous giant earthworm robot will literally bug you out, when you see what it can do. Dubbed “Pipe-worm,” which stands for Programmable Worm for Irregular Pipeline Exploration), this updated autonomous soft robot design represents a continuation of work funded by DARPA’s Underminer program to develop more advanced tunneling technologies as well as new detection and operational solutions for surveillance. and maintenance of underground networks.

A recent demonstration of GE’s Pipe-worm at its Niskayuna research campus not only showed the robot’s potential for military applications envisioned under the Underminer program, but it also has vast potential for a variety of innovative applications. monitoring, inspection and repair of industrial pipelines. Deepak Trivedi, a top soft robotics expert at GE Research who led the development of GE’s Pipe-worm, noted that he successfully walked over 100 meters of pipe while navigating numerous bends, diameters and elevation changes. The robot has even been shown to move through pipes without disrupting normal operations, and even against fast-flowing liquids. Additionally, the pushing and pulling of its powerful artificial muscles illustrated the robot’s suitability for heavy-duty jobs such as cleaning up the solid waste deposits, called fatbergs, that currently plague many of our country’s sewage systems. The application of AI and robots to deal with fatbergs was recently highlighted in a major Wall Street Journal news characteristic.

“GE’s Pipe-worm takes the concept of the plumber’s drain snake to a whole new level,” said Deepak Trivedi, a soft robotics expert at GE Research who led the development of Pipe-Worm. “This AI-enabled autonomous robot has the ability to inspect and potentially repair pipelines on its own, breaking up the formation of masses of solid waste like fatbergs that are an ongoing problem with many of our nation’s sewer systems. We’ve added cockroach-like whiskers to its body that give it vastly enhanced levels of perception for making sharp turns or navigating through dark, unfamiliar parts of a network of pipelines.”

Trivedi explained that the combination of artificial intelligence and the addition of cockroach-like whiskers allows GE’s Pipe-worm to automatically identify bends, bends, junctions, pipe diameter, orientation of the pipe and other pipeline features in great detail. It is then able to use this information to create a map of a given pipeline network in real time. Cockroach whiskers are incredibly sensitive at detecting the slightest changes in the air and environment around them.

In addition to pipeline network monitoring, inspection, repair and mapping, GE Research’s Robotics and Autonomy team is exploring other autonomous inspection and repair applications such as jet engines and power turbines in the aviation and energy sectors. Trivedi explained that scaled-down versions of the robot could be used to navigate and inspect these much smaller crevices and spaces. Additionally, the Pipe-worm robot could be used to inspect the conduits of underground fiber optic cables that connect billions of people and machines to the internet online.

About GE Research

GE Research is GE’s innovation powerhouse where research meets reality. We are a world-class team of scientific, engineering and marketing minds working at the intersection of physics and markets, physical and digital technologies, and across a wide range of industries to deliver our customers breakthrough innovations and capabilities. To learn more, visit our website at www.ge.com/research/.

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Todd Alhart
GE Search
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