Creating a win-win solution with robots

Robotics team and robot
West Salem High Robotics Team members work with a prototype.

ODOT partners with high school robotics team to create inspection tool

Robotics team and robot
West Salem High Robotics Team members work with a prototype.

In the back of the room, a team is at work building a robot. It’s not cute like BB-8 or R2-D2. It doesn’t flail its arms shouting, “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” or function using a positronic brain designed by Dr. Soong. It doesn’t even beep or buzz. But what it does is something outstanding: it ventures into dark, dank and potentially dangerous culverts where it could encounter rocks, mud — or even a family of raccoons.

Meet ODOT’s newest robot, designed exclusively for the department to some pretty exacting standards, and created by some of the finest robotic engineers available: students at West Salem High School.

Smaller culverts pose a problem

failed culvert
A rotted culvert.

Rob Trevis, ODOT culvert engineering program leader, was faced with a problem. ODOT has thousands of culverts — tunnels that carry water underneath a roadway — and many of them are past their design life. Culverts can be made out of metal, plastic or concrete and range in size from 12 inches to 20 feet in span. And if one of them fails, it could mean the temporary closure of a highway — or something much worse.

“We’ve never done an assessment of our smaller culverts,” Trevis said. “We don’t even have a good number for how many we have. We’ve inventoried about 18,000, but there are a lot more. We probably have 35-40,000 culverts; we estimate 30 percent of them to be at the poor or critical stage.”

What about a robot?

Trevis learned that Minnesota DOT uses a robot to do some of its culvert inspections and thought that we could do the same thing — only better. He contacted Greg Smith, a computer science teacher and robotics coach at West Salem High School, and bounced the concept off of him. He loved the idea!

Robot prototype
Robot prototype

Trevis and Smith pitched the idea to the robotics students. Once they learned what a culvert was, they were all in. Trevis outlined the parameters of the project: the robot needs to be small, able to traverse many different types of terrain (including water to a depth of four inches) and carry lights and a camera to see inside the culvert. An operator needs to be able to control the robot remotely from a distance of about 200 feet, it needs to be easily transportable, and it should be something that crews could repair if needed.

A team of 12 students is now hard at work on the “Cooperative Culvert Research Project.”

“The notes from our brainstorming filled up the whiteboards and could have continued clear out the door,” Robotics Coach Smith said. “These are very smart kids, very innovative with good imaginations. They were ready to dive right in!”

The goal is to have a fully-functioning robot ready to roll later this year. Students will continue to refine the design, testing and making modifications along the way — and then, there’ll be a real world challenge: a test run through an actual culvert.

Providing service while saving money

“I see benefits for both ODOT and the students,” Trevis said. “Videotaping a culvert is an expensive process. It costs from $80-100,000 for a digitally mounted track and the whole system. Our budget for this robot is about $2,000. Having this new tool won’t replace anybody, but it will help us, especially in the scoping, and the kids get to see something they built get used in real life.”

Learning about potential careers

“Robotics is awesome — I love it because it combines computer science and engineering,” Smith said. “It’s really motivating to kids to go beyond what I can model inside the classroom. To tie in to ODOT, that’s just a huge benefit. To have this tied in to industry, to show it’s not just a classroom activity — but there’s a potential career, that’s a huge benefit to the kids.”

“I’ve always wanted to experience something like this,” said junior Alejandra Barajas, team president. “Just being faced with a problem that you’re not sure of, it challenges you; it makes you grow.”

And the extra bonus for us? Alejandra said, “When you experience things hands on, it really puts it into perspective, and it’s enjoyable. It’s made me want to pursue an engineering-type career in the future.”