Innovation: Robots eye up tower blocks

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The dangerous and expensive job of inspecting the outside surfaces of tower blocks may soon be handed over to climbing robots. Portsmouth Technology Consultants (Portech), which specialises in robots for use in hazardous environments, is forming a consortium of companies in the building industry to develop a prototype based on research it has carried out in collaboration with Portsmouth University.

The robots climb walls using vacuum suckers on their feet. Portech claims it has developed suckers that are effective even if the robot is climbing uneven surfaces, such as brick, where air may be able to get in and break the vacuum. The robots can also cling to very smooth surfaces such as glass.

The company already has three robots in operation with Nuclear Electric, which uses them to inspect its pressure vessels. 'The heavy investment needed to develop the basic vehicle is already completed,' said Richard Waterman of Portech.

'We now want to work with user companies in the building industry to develop a robot that will meet the industry's needs.'

It is risky and costly to inspect a tower block. Surveyors must either erect scaffolding, hire a crane, or use suspended cradles or abseilers. Mr Waterman said the robot climbers could carry more instruments and take more precise measurements than surveyors in these conditions.

The robots are quick, easy to use and, unlike some methods in use, will not damage a building. They are also able to cover more area, especially where access is particularly difficult. Because robots do not get tired, they can carry out more thorough and accurate surveys.

Portech wants to put a range of inspection equipment on the climbing robot, including a closed-circuit television camera, a core sampler for taking specimens of concrete and a cover meter for checking the thickness of concrete over its reinforcement.

Mr Waterman said it would cost about pounds 100,000 to develop a working prototype with a full range of equipment. He expects the robots to cost about pounds 10,000 each.

Portech is a small company with a turnover under pounds 1m. The company wants to set up the consortium not only to help finance the building robot but also to provide technical expertise.

''We need industry to help us give it what it needs,' said Mr Waterman.

He has approached a wide range of potential users, including construction companies, architects, structural engineers, building material companies and members of the British Association for Automation and Robotics in Construction. But the recession in the building industry has left companies with little money to spare.

Yet the climbing robots will not only eliminate safety problems but also save money. More than pounds 17bn a year is currently spent on building maintenance in the UK.

Birmingham City Council is responsible for more than 400 tower blocks that are believed to have structural decay. It is interested in using the robots to carry out initial surveys of the buildings. The robots could perform pre-contract inspection, without the need for any expensive access equipment.

Mr Waterman said the climbing robots could also be adapted to carry out repairs and maintenance, such as spraying paint or sealants that are hazardous to humans. They could also work on building construction. 'In the future a small local builder might use a climbing robot to carry bricks up a wall.'

(Photograph omitted)