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Lehigh Valley Startup’s Snake-Like Robot To Revolutionize Electrical Industry

By Colin McEvoy on June 12, 2018

The below story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) Newsletter, and has been reprinted with permission. Click here to read the original newsletter.

Matt Bilsky, founder of Impossible Incorporated LLC and post-doctoral student and adjunct faculty member at Lehigh University, has invented a patent-pending, snake-like robot that will revolutionize the electrical industry.

Running wires through walls is currently a messy and expensive task. To run wires across a room, electricians must break into the wall at each stud and joist, and then drill a hole in the wall through which they can pull wires. After wiring, electricians must patch and paint the holes they drilled, which increases their task’s cost. The potentially hazardous opening of the wall results in large messes and damage that cannot be perfectly patched.

Bilsky’s one-inch diameter robot can be inserted through an outlet-sized hole and teleoperated.

When inside a wall or ceiling, the robot drills all necessary holes in studs and joists along the way to its destination. The robot reaches its destination, attaches the wires, and returns through the wall, pulling the wires behind. Markets and applications for the robot and its technologies include: home inspection, aerospace, disaster recovery, and assistive technologies/prosthetics.

The robot’s movements mimic a regular drilling strategy: setup, drill, move, repeat. A system of rigid, snake-like, repositionable links makes this happen. A large, powerful motor is placed outside the wall. Rotational energy transfers from the motor through the robot to a gear box proximal to the drill bit in the wall using a high-speed flexible drive shaft.

Once the robot maneuvers to the drilling location, it braces itself within the cavity, then locks rigidly to withstand the drilling forces. The robot is essentially a traditional power drill split in half.

To make the robot strong yet agile, researchers have invented a novel motion method that allows the robot to move within a plane, such as a wall or ceiling, while also being able to move out of the plane. The robot can also advance through drilled holes.

Impossible Incorporated LLC has partnered with Lehigh University through two PITA grants to support the development of the robot. The first grant develops the sub-systems of the robot, and the second focuses on the higher-level systems enabling its function.

The first PITA grant allows collaboration with Professor Brandon Krick, who runs the Lehigh Tribology Laboratory. Krick’s group has expertise in studying the wear on mechanical systems. This knowledge has furthered the development of the mechanical gear boxes that power the system. Additionally, study of the behavior of the flexible drive shafts helps to identify a viable casing solution to protect the shaft within the robot.

The recently-awarded second PITA grant will enable collaboration with Lehigh Professor Subhrajit Bhattacharya, an expert in robotic path-planning and simulation. This PITA grant will support Impossible Incorporated LLC’s development of a wall-mapping system that can scan and map existing obstacles within a wall. This system will use algorithms to autonomously guide the robot. The results of this collaboration will enable electricians to identify where on a mapped wall they wish to drill.

“Through the PITA program, I am practicing what I teach by serving as the industry partner for the project and enabling graduate students to work on real-world projects that illustrate the power of technology transfer and industry-academia partnerships,” says Bilsky, who also teaches the Technical Entrepreneurship Capstone course at Lehigh University. “The PITA program has afforded me the opportunity to have world-class researchers advance the project, and is allowing me to take my pre-revenue startup to the next level by pursing federal grants and commercialization opportunities.”

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