Robots steeled to mend bridges

August 18, 1995

The expensive and hazardous business of repairing steel bridges could become a lot safer and cheaper with the help of robot technology developed by the defence industry for the remote disposal of bombs and surveillance tasks.

City University researchers have reached this conclusion after a 15-month study for the Steel Construction Institute.

The researchers, based at the university's construction robotics unit, say that the use of robots for steel bridge repairs could eliminate health risks, improve safety and lead to a five-fold increase in productivity.

Denis Chamberlain, head of the unit, says that his team is hoping to collaborate with the Defence Research Agency to explore how defence technology can be modified for use in the construction industry. "Both defence and construction application share the same requirements for robustness, reliability, weatherproofing and protection against 'heavy-handed' operators."

Special computer software is helping the team to simulate the system at work and initial findings suggest that robotic handling can allow substantially more powerful and productive tools to be operated than is currently possible.

Professor Chamberlain says that major German, Swedish and Dutch companies have already offered to cooperate in the development of a full-scale prototype system.

"In view of the pressing environmental, health and safety issues, firms operating and developing such technology are likely to gain a distinct commercial advantage worldwide," he said.

Around 500,000 steel bridges exist throughout Europe, Japan and the United States, requiring an estimated $700 million for maintenance and repair each year.

Those working on bridge maintenance risk exposure to carcinogens, released by the removal of zinc chromate paints, and lead intake from certain protective coatings. Workers also risk injury from repetitive tool handling and use of outdated working platforms.

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