How artificial intelligence robots can support NJ’s underwater infrastructure

Doctoral students at Stevens Institute of Technology hope the robot they’re developing will be able to dive into waters and perform tasks that could be very dangerous for humans.

“We would like the robot to be able to do infrastructure inspections, ideally to assess the integrity of underwater infrastructure, make sure everything is intact, working properly, that there are no damages or defects. Or potentially from a security standpoint, that there are no anomalies planted on an underwater piece of infrastructure,” said Dr. Brendan Englot, professor of mechanical engineering.

To do this, the robot must be able to understand its location in the water and be able to accurately find the structures it needs to assess. Through a process called machine learning, the robot gathers data and improves its own performance.

“We present the robot with about 200 images from our data set, and it can go back and navigate on its own just from learning from those 200 images,” Englot said.

The data collected actually teaches the robot how it needs to operate autonomously.

“We’re collecting data right now that will be used to train our robot how to detect and classify the location of the pipe in the image,” Englot said.

He believes the robot can help the state more reliably assess the condition of its bridge and pier pilings.

“We often walk past a pier on the Hoboken waterfront that was damaged in Hurricane Sandy. We might not know with perfect certainty what the health or appearance is of that pier,” Englot said. “It would be able to go down, make its own decisions about how to explore the environment, and come back with a complete 3D map of the pier. Those are the kind of applications that we’re thinking about that could really be beneficial to New Jersey.”

According the Department of Transportation, 539 of New Jersey’s bridges are in need of repair.

“We have very old infrastructure here in New Jersey. Also, being a coastal state and a state that’s a corridor state with a lot of heavy truck traffic, that really takes a toll on our bridges,” said Department of Transportation spokesperson Steve Schapiro.

Bridge repair is a priority for Gov. Phil Murphy, who recently allotted $47.3 million to a program called Local Bridges, Future Needs. Schapiro says the state is open to using to new technology to improve its outcomes.

“The Department of Transportation is always interested in looking at technology and how it can be used to benefit the state to work more quickly or more cost effectively,” he said.

“This could also help improve safety, limit the amount of time divers have to be exposed to danger and assess the health of underwater infrastructure more frequently. Anytime that you need to take a look at something, you could send a robot down to scan it,” said Englot.

Once the robot perfects its analysis in the tank, Englot will test it off a pier in the Hudson River. He expects the technology will be perfected in about a year or two, which could revolutionize the way New Jersey understands its infrastructure.