How a robot designed for Disney could extend the lives of bridges by fighting corrosion

C2D2 roves beneath a bridge, checking the surface for corrosion. Credit: ZTH ZurichC2D2 roves beneath a bridge, checking the surface for corrosion. Credit: ZTH Zurich

A new robot dubbed C2D2 developed by a team of Swiss researchers is able to move atop, underneath and across any surface, checking structural integrity as it roves, and could greatly extend the lives of bridges.

Both de-icing salt and CO2 in the atmosphere corrode the reinforced concrete that most bridges are made of over time, according to the researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). This corrosion worsens over time and unfortunately it’s only visible at an advanced stage of damage. And considering that in Switzerland, many bridges are more than 50 years old, this is a pretty big problem. In the U.S., the average age of bridges is 42 years old. And since bridges are built to last about 50 years, the average bridge in the U.S. is near the end of its life, too.

However, monitoring the slow corrosion of concrete bridges and performing the needed maintenance periodically could greatly extend the lives of bridges and make the average bridge much safer for people to drive on.

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The folks at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Building Materials actually developed a technology for that type of monitoring 25 years ago that uses an electrode attached to a wheel to analyze the level of corrosion affecting the bridge surface. Unfortunately, that wheel was attached to a stick and moved across the bridges manually, which means that a bridge’s supporting pillars and the undersides of high bridges weren’t accessible.

So, they decided to build a robot that can carry the sensor for them. The schools’ Institute for Building Materials teamed up with its Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems and found that one of the students involved with the project had actually developed the perfect robot four years before, one that uses suction to stick to and move around on walls and ceilings.

Interestingly enough, the robot was originally intended to be used by Disney as a way to film movie scenes from all angles. But for the bridge project, the team reengineered the robot a bit and made “the casing and wheels more robust and incorporated the corrosion-identification technology,” said Bernhard Elsener, professor at the Institute for Building Materials at ETH Zurich and the leader of the project.

The team named it Climbing Corrosion Detecting Device, or C2D2.

The team also attached a pink ball to the top of the robot which makes it easier for cameras to detect and easier for operators to locate and control it.

The ball also contains a camera that allows the robot to avoid any obstacles. Currently, C2D2 is driven via remote control or a computer. But the hope is that by the middle of 2015, the robot will be able to be programmed and rove bridges autonomously.