The Dull, The Dangerous and The Dirty

This past week, I watched one of my favorite movies “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.” Inspired by the highly anticipated premier of HBO’s remake of “West World,” (trailer below), I thought about recasting Albert Grimaldi’s 1966 classic in robotic terms – ‘the dull, the dangerous, and the dirty.’ This kernel of an idea grew as I read about some of the most helpful, and least recognized, mechanical innovations to hit the market.

The Dull

This week Kansas City, Mo. profiled its most efficient municipal workers – sewage robots that are capable of scouring 3,000 miles of pipes below the surface in an effort of both conserving water resources and stopping leaks before they disrupt service.  These million plus dollar robots are able to rapidly locate fissures & fractures in the city’s aging water system,  with little input from the humans above. This is good news for the Midwestern city, as many of its pipes date back to the Civil War era, installed more than 160 years ago.

The Kansas City Water Services Department invested appropriately $2.5 million on a fleet of 8 robots and 8 programming trucks that broadcast live and recorded video feed of the pipe’s lining. Every day, human workers place the robots in different sewer pipes and record what they see through its camera, creating a virtual video tour of the city’s entire sewer system. Water Service employees use a remote control to steer the robot down the pipe. If they find a crack that needs repair, they fix it right away rather than wasting valuable resources on exploratory digs. This technology allows them to catch potential catastrophes before they happen.

“Definitely don’t want to have sewage in your basement or don’t want to have sewage in your environment as well, so we take every measure we can access the city’s infrastructure and make sure it’s in working order,” said Amir Kenner, senior engineering technician. “What we definitely want to find out is if there’s any cracks, fractures, anything that would warrant some repairs or cleaning activity, so we try to take a preventative maintenance approach to at least catch things beforehand.”

Initiatives like Kansas City’s are critical to the longevity of our planet and the quality of life in our modern cities.  Its water services have already mapped about a third of the city’s 2,800 miles of sewer line. They say it will take another eight years to complete the job as the robots are actively saving the city time and money by finding potential sewage backups before they actually happen.

According to the American Water Works Association, 2.1 trillion gallons of fresh water is lost each year in this country due to aging and leaky pipes, broken water mains, and faulty meters. According to the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit focused on sustainability, “about 6 billion gallons of water per day may be wasted in the U.S.,” says Danielle Gallet, the group’s water supply program manager.

“We do have a crumbling infrastructure issue… the massive investment that our grandparents, great-grandparents, some of us our great-great-grandparents put in, is coming to the end of its useful life, and the bill has come due on our watch,” Gallet says.

The Dangerous 

Today, there are 110 million landmines in the ground in 78 countries around the globe, killing between 15,000 -20,000 people a year. The removal of landmines is slow, dangerous (for every 5000 mines cleared 1 worker is killed and 2 injured), and costly ($300 to $1,000 to remove 1 mine). To date, there is no way to rapidly detect landmines over a large area of land. De-miners must go meter by meter and manually detect and then remove the mines. This takes a tremendous amount of time and involves having to cover areas that do not have mines. In the past 5 years, less than 1000 kilometers worldwide were cleared of mines. If de-mining continues at this current pace, it will take more than one thousand years to remove all the mines.

Designer and entrepreneur Massoud Hassani hopes to rid the planet of its buried land mines within 10 years. Several years ago, he developed the Mine Kafon – a device that rolls across minefields like a tumbleweed, tripping mines as it goes. While it’s a clever idea, he still wanted something that worked faster. To that end, he is now developing the Mine Kafon Drone.


Currently in working prototype form, the drone takes the form of a custom-made multicopter that can be equipped with different tools. It’s designed to seek and destroy mines in a three-step process.

First, equipped with a camera, the drone flies over the minefield in a grid pattern to create a 3D map of the area. Next, it goes back over with a metal detector hanging beneath it, located 4 cm above the ground, and this device detects where the mines are buried. Their locations are noted on the map, in the form of GPS waypoints. Finally, with a gripper swapped in place of the metal detector, the drone returns to the mines and deposits explosives on them, which are then detonated remotely.

Ultimately, Hassani would like to see the whole system be autonomous. He estimates that once it’s up and running, it should be 20 times faster and far less expensive than traditional methods such as human or canine crews. Of course, it would also be safer.  If you’re interested in helping support the development of the Mine Kafon Drone, it’s currently the subject of a Kickstarter campaign.

The Dirty

Prostate exams aren’t exactly an enjoyable experience, but if you ever need one, you’ll want the doctor to know what he’s doing. Unfortunately, the procedure is difficult for medical students to learn, due to the internal nature of the examination and a lack of willing test subjects. Scientists at Imperial College London wanted to solve that problem by developing a robotic rectum that recreates the feel of the real thing and even provides haptic feedback.


“Internal examinations are really challenging to learn – and to teach,” says Dr Fernando Bello of Imperial College London. “Because the examinations occur in the body, the trainer cannot see what the trainee is doing, and vice versa. In addition to this, medics rarely get the chance to practice the examination, as few patients would volunteer as practice subjects. In fact, there is only one person registered in the country as a test subject, called a Rectal Teaching Assistant (RTA) in the UK.”

Using a screen to display a 3D image of the anatomy allows both trainer and trainee to see what’s happening in there. The robotic rectum is customizable too, allowing trainers to program in a variety of scenarios and teach students the difference between a healthy and a potentially cancerous prostate gland.

“We have already asked a number of doctors and nurses – including prostate specialists and cancer surgeons – to trial the technology,” says Dr Alejandro Granados, the researcher leading development of the project. “They commented on the great advantage of being able to alter the anatomy. The size and shape of the rectum and prostate can vary greatly from person to person, and this technology enables medics to practice their skills in many different virtual patients. They also observed that because these examinations are performed solely by feel, experiencing a realistic sensation is crucial.”

This realism was achieved by conducting MRI scans of patients, and the team continues to collect data to improve the device. For example, they’re asking doctors to put small pressure sensors inside their gloves, at the fingertip, to register the exact pressure needed for an exam, as part of ongoing research into the best practice for the procedure. These sensors could also be used in conjunction with the imaging software and standard plastic models as a more affordable alternative to the robo-rectum, which costs $13,250.

The team is currently working on developing these prototypes for use in medical schools, as well as adapting the technology for use in gynecological exams. What will they think of next?

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