Working on a robot

Robo-Inspector Fends Off Flooding

Purchasing a $60,000 mobile video robot to inspect stormwater pipes didn’t fit into Horsham Township’s budget. So officials turned to Brandywine engineering majors, who delivered Stormbot on time and way, way under budget.
Penn State Brandywine engineering students solve real problems for real clients. They hone their technical skills, interact with users and manage field trials before they graduate.

Charged with maintaining critical infrastructure in Horsham Township, Public Works Director Dennis Haggerty needed a cost-effective and flexible option to examine stormwater pipes, which help prevent flooding and erosion.

“We hired outside contractors in the past, but it’s expensive,” he said. “We borrowed a camera, but it wasn’t ideal.”

Realizing that a custom video inspection robot wouldn’t just wash up in his office, Haggerty turned to students in Penn State Brandywine and Penn State Abington’s four-year engineering program to help build the robot Horsham Township needed.

Donald Fay builds robot

Brandywine senior Donald Fay works through calculations to improve the Stormbot's electrical usage. 

Credit: Michael McDade

“I thought this could be good for everyone,” he said. “We form a partnership with Penn State students who get to test their skills in real-life situations, and we get the video robot.”

“It was exciting for the students to see concepts from classes come together.” -- Bob Avanzato, associate professor of engineering

Bob Avanzato, associate professor of engineering, explained that Stormbot was perfect for his senior robot design course and noted the importance of hands-on learning. 

“It was exciting for the students to see concepts from classes come together,” Avanzato said.

Haggerty provided them with data, videos, images and samples of piping material. The students kept in close contact with their client as they developed a robot to meet the township’s needs.

Haggerty's requirements included:

  • The robot's camera must pan and tilt, returning HD video and still images;
  • A console allows the user to operate the robot and maneuver the camera from above ground;
  • Workers must be able to review the video transmission live as they search for compromises and obstructions in pipes;
  • An emergency cable in case it needs to be removed by hand.

After months of hard work, it was finally time to test their design in the field. Haggerty and township workers released the robot into two residential storm pipes while Avanzato and senior Charles Liggett guided them, ready to troubleshoot.

Charles Liggett deploys Stormbo

Horsham Public Works employees and Penn State Abington senior Charles Liggett (right) prepare to deploy Stormbot into residential storm pipes. 

Credit: Penn State

As expected, Stormbot steered clear of debris and maneuvered around obstacles including bricks and a toy rocket. The LED lighting supported the video quality and highlighted areas workers wanted to explore further. 

“The results were very positive, and the Horsham people were very pleased with the results," Avanzato said. "We had some minor issues, but in each case, the robot moved between 100 and 150 feet within the pipe.”

“It’s a working prototype and will be brought up to industry-ready conditions,” Liggett said.

"The Penn State students built something amazing.” -- Dennis Haggerty, Horsham Township

Several weeks later, Avanzato and his students sat in the audience while Haggerty presented the near-final version of the robot to the Horsham Township Council.

“The quality is high for post-processing the video and analyzing snapshots,” Haggerty told council members, who supported the results and the partnership with Penn State.

Shot from stormbot in pipe

A photo from Stormbot's camera shows debris in a Horsham Township stormwater pipe. 

Credit: Penn State

In the end, Haggerty said he was glad he didn’t follow his first impulse — attaching a GoPro to his son’s remote control car and letting it loose in the pipes. 

“The Penn State students built something amazing,” Haggerty said. “The results are valuable and useful and so is the relationship."

More on Penn State Brandywine’s general engineering program

Through a consortium consisting of Penn State Brandywine, Penn State Abington and Penn State Great Valley, undergraduate engineering students in the Philadelphia region can now complete their baccalaureate degrees without leaving the area.

The first two years of foundational engineering coursework is offered at both Penn State Brandywine and Penn State Abington, while the last two years of advanced engineering coursework is offered at the new engineering facility at Penn State Great Valley.