Carnegie Mellon University
November 05, 2013

Akinci Awarded $2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Aerial Robot for Infrastructure Monitoring

Akinci Awarded $2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Aerial Robot for Infrastructure Monitoring

Above is the point cloud data of a bridge captured by the aerial robot inspector's sensors.  Above is the point cloud data of a bridge captured by the aerial robot inspector's sensors.

Flying robots may be just around the corner… or underneath the bridges you drive over. CEE Professor Burcu Akinci and three collaborators have received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative (NRI) to develop an autonomous robotic assistant for use in infrastructure modeling and inspection. The grant, which spans three years, was awarded to an interdisciplinary team of CMU researchers led by Research Professor Sanjiv Singh (Robotics Institute) and featuring Akinci, Senior Systems Scientist Daniel Huber (Robotics Institute), and Systems Scientist Sebastian Scherer (Robotics Institute) as co-principal investigators. The project will also include researchers from Northeastern University’s Civil & Environmental Engineering department, who bring expertise in structural analysis and finite element modeling.

The aerial robot project was initially funded by a Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) seed grant awarded to Akinci, Scherer, and Huber for 2012-2013. The PITA-funded project focused on developing the first robotic prototype for bridge inspection and was conducted in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. PITA, a Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) sponsored program, is designed to provide economic benefit to Pennsylvania through knowledge transfer, technological discovery, and the retention of highly educated students. It is a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) at Lehigh University, and the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES) at CMU. PITA’s programs have led to the creation and implementation of numerous cutting-edge technologies in Pennsylvania companies and have also led to the formation of several start-up companies.

The NRI-funded aerial robot project, entitled “Fast and Accurate Infrastructure Modeling and Inspection with Low-Flying Robots,” proposes combining small aerial robots with 3D imaging techniques and state-of-the-art planning, modeling, and analysis to evaluate the health of bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure.  The researchers will also study the potential roles of humans in the assessment process, such as robot deployment or data registering, and will develop a curriculum to involve robotics and civil engineering students in the research.  

Akinci’s role in the project will focus on supporting a virtual environment that infrastructure inspectors can use to perform inspections and interact with data gathered by aerial robots and other methods. This virtual environment will include both an immersive 3D environment and a desktop environment to support inspector decision-making and increase situation awareness. “We’re hoping that with this environment, the inspector will be able to conduct an initial inspection and then communicate requirements for the next stage of data collection to the aerial robot,” Akinci explained.

Akinci is renowned for her research on smart infrastructure technologies and has demonstrated a continued interest in promoting sustainable solutions to civil infrastructure issues in Pennsylvania and worldwide. In June 2013, she and Carnegie Mellon Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Bruno Sinopoli were appointed as co-directors of the Smart Infrastructure Incubator (SII), an interdisciplinary research lab housed within ICES. SII aims to advance infrastructure technology through partnerships with Pennsylvania businesses and government agencies.

“What is interesting about this project is that it’s a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary initiative that draws on a number of perspectives,” Akinci said. “I’m already receiving calls from researchers around the country who are interested in the work we’re doing. I think this project is going to put CMU in the forefront of this type of research for large-scale infrastructure system inspection.”