US Army research engineers test DamBot autonomous robotic system at Fort Worth District Lake

In an effort to prevent personnel exposure to high-risk environments and dangerous but necessary maintenance tasks, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is currently developing an autonomous robotic system known as DamBot. As part of this pilot program, ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory’s Robotic Assessment of Dams (DamBot) team traveled to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District’s Stillhouse Hollow Lake in Temple, Texas recently to test the capabilities of DamBot.
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The DamBot allows for precise and repeatable inspections that can be viewed remotely, meaning inspectors can do their jobs from a safe distance. (Picture source: U.S. Army/Trevor Welsh)

Chris Bryan, Asset and Maintenance Management Technical Lead for Fort Worth District Operations Division, Asset Management and Flood Risk Management Business Line, said the District jumped at the opportunity to have its dams chosen for DamBot testing. “Well, it all started with an email,” said Bryan. “The Engineer Research and Development Center, also known as ERDC, sent out an email Corps-wide touting the program they developed known as DamBot. Fort Worth District saw the email, we latched on to it, emailed them almost immediately and our leadership was fully supportive of it. We maintained communication and set up a site visit at Stillhouse Hollow Lake’s discharge conduit. Through that communication and coordination, we were able to build a partnership to where we can possibly get future dams inspected with DamBot.”

Earthen embankment dams feature an outlet works structure that includes a tunnel that can be up to half a mile long leading to gates that control water levels. Construction materials are vulnerable to corrosion and fatigue issues that may compromise the structural integrity of the system and put personnel entering the tunnel in jeopardy.

DamBot is a robotic platform carrying a variety of sensors such as high-resolution cameras and Lidar and can create an extremely detailed model of the entire outlet works system. Typically, an inspection involves a human physically entering the tunnel to take photographs of concerning spots and document anomalies by hand. The DamBot allows for precise and repeatable inspections that can be viewed remotely, meaning inspectors can do their jobs from a safe distance.

Anton Netchaev, a Research Computer Scientist in ERDC’s Information Technology Lab said the final goal of a DamBot inspection is to drive all the way to the discharge gates, deploy a robotic arm, scan the whole structure, and create a digital surrogate so the dam safety team can compare year to year looking for flaws or issues in the dam. “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to map the dam all the way through and reconstruct it in a 3-D world,” Netchaev said. “This is so the people don’t have to go in and take smaller cameras and all the other equipment they need to go through the dam and take pictures of the dam. This will give you better data overall, you can record year to year, personnel are not in danger, and it’s a lot easier to do.”

The DamBot program started with a statement of need that came out about three years ago specifically looking at non-destructive testing options for dams: “How can we inspect the gate in situ, which means while being still installed,” said Netchaev. “It’s very expensive to remove the gear and put it back in; right now, it can cost around a quarter-million dollars to remove the gate and put it back. So, we decided to tackle the first problem: how do we get to the gate and get a sensor to the gate itself?”

A diverse and multi-faceted research and engineering team is required to bring a project like DamBot to life. Netchaev said the team is over 50 strong in terms of robotic development across many projects. The robotics efforts span across military and civil works needs. “We have mechanical engineers, computer scientists, computers engineers, electrical engineers, biologists-it’s full chunk of various engineers that make this work,” he said. “Robotics is such a diverse field that you must have a deep knowledge of many different areas. We need sensor expertise and mechanical expertise to attach sensors to make the motion systems work. We need computer scientists to write software so you can interact with the systems. We need autonomy specialists who are computer scientists and computer engineers to be able to work all that. How do you interact that all together? It’s a lot of pieces of the puzzle to bring together.”

This was only the second time the DamBot’s capabilities have been tested via dam outlet works inspection. At the end of the day, unforeseen challenges prevented a full inspection, but the team will use lessons learned to improve DamBot’s capabilities. The goal for today was to do a full inspection of the discharge conduit,” Bryan said. “We weren’t able to accomplish the mission today. This was the first time the DamBot has come out to Texas and put into use, so there are some challenges that we didn’t really anticipate such as the algae and the slippery slope of the apron. We tried to make entry, we just couldn’t do it safely, so we decided to stop operations for today so we can devise a plan to do it safely and effectively.”

“Hopefully we can come out here again and you know defeat this issue soon drive through the dam and get some really good imagery,” Netchaev said.

As one of the most diverse engineering and scientific research organizations in the world, ERDC conducts research and development in support of the Soldier, military installations, and the Corps of Engineers' civil works mission, as well as for other federal agencies, state and municipal authorities, and with U.S. industries through innovative work agreements. ERDC operates more than $1 billion in world-class facilities at seven labs located in four states with more than 2,100 employees to administer an annual research program exceeding $1 billion.

USACE Fort Worth District was established in 1950. The District is responsible for water resources development in two-thirds of Texas, and design and construction at military installations in Texas and parts of Louisiana and New Mexico.

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DamBot is a robotic platform carrying a variety of sensors such as high-resolution cameras and Lidar and can create an extremely detailed model of the dam's entire outlet works system. (Picture source: U.S. Army/Trevor Welsh)