Designing a bat-inspired robot for operation in confined spaces

ECE Assistant Professor Alireza Ramezani, in collaboration with Khoury Assistant Professor Lawson Wong and Koushil Sreenath from the University of California-Berkeley, is leading a $1m NSF grant for “Design, Flight Control, and Autonomous Navigation of Bioinspired Morphing Micro Aerial Vehicles for Operation in Confined Spaces.”

In 2021, PIs Ramezani and Wong were awarded an internal seed grant called NU’s TIER1 Interdisciplinary Research Seed Grant to make the preliminary prototype of a bio-inspired drone that can operate and navigate autonomously in sewers. The TIER1 project helped the PIs conceive this NSF project.

To assure widespread acceptability, long-term sustainability, and commercialization of the proposed NSF project, the team has partnered with MassRobotics, OST and Geisel Software. These industry partners will detail the real problems faced in sewer network inspections and, as a result, help the team address any challenges.

This project will promote the progress of science in aerial robotics and advance the national prosperity and welfare, by creating bat-inspired drones that can operate in extremely confined spaces. There is an increased demand for fast, continuous environmental surveillance in city sewers. These confined spaces occupy a large portion of a city’s infrastructure. However, today’s conventional robots, including ground and aerial systems, cannot operate in a vast majority of sewers.

Sewer networks present a veritable maze of pipes, chambers, and utility holes that pose tremendous challenges for robot locomotion control and navigation. Therefore, human operators still inspect these dangerous spaces. In addition to carrying many risks for humans, manned operations in these environments are costly and slow. This grant’s research will contribute to the design of aerial, bat-inspired robots that can operate in sewers, by mimicking bat aerial locomotion principles in caves. The results from this research will greatly benefit the society.

Especially during a pandemic, the continuous and automated monitoring of a city’s aging sewer systems using these bat-inspired drones can play a vital role in saving human lives. For instance, SARS-CoVs can be present in wastewater for several days, and its early detection in sewers in 2019 could have allowed for increased preparedness in combating the current pandemic. This project trains new generation scientists, engineers, and technologists with interdisciplinary skills, providing future professionals with vertically integrated, use-inspired experiential learning activities.

Today’s rotary-wing drones are better solutions for inspection and monitoring city infrastructure than ground robots because they are scalable, inexpensive, easy to deploy, and possess fast mobility. However, these systems cannot fly inside tight areas such as tunnels with small cross-sections because they rely on powerful and continuous air jets. So far, the confined space applications of these drones include only flying inside buildings or very spacious confined environments, which are not comparable to the application of aerial robots in sewers.

This research will allow drones to complete fully autonomous flights inside tight spaces such as sewer galleries. The research team will (i) use an integrated mechanical intelligence and control framework to design drones with dynamically versatile body conformations and significant computational complexity to prevent creation of powerful air jets, (ii) design an integrated model-based and data-driven flight control framework that captures not only the model uncertainty but also the environmental aerodynamic effects that arise due to flight in tunnels, and (iii) develop a novel navigation framework that relies on high-level abstract guidance extracted from sewer schematic diagrams, enabling robust navigation in unmapped environments.

This project is supported by the cross-directorate Foundational Research in Robotics programme, jointly managed and funded by the Directorates for Engineering (ENG) and Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE).

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.