Mighty Duct Cleaning Robot

Soon, a new army of robots may enter the cleaning workforce. These robots will be more efficient than the current ones — especially when it comes to tackling the tedious and sometimes hazardous job of cleaning industrial air-conditioning ducts.

SMART CLEANERS: Dr Xia Qing Hua (left) and his colleague, Mr Peng Jun with their hardworking robot.

Dr Xia Qing Hua is currently busy sprucing up his prototype robot which can clean ventilation ducts three to four times more efficient than existing ones in the market. Translated, this means lower cost, shorter time as well as lesser manpower and accessories required. Dr Xia recently completed his PhD in robotics (Advanced Controllers for Robotic Applications) at the Department of Mechanical Engineering under the supervision of Associate Professor Marcelo Ang, and co-supervisor Dr Lim Ser Yong. He, his partner Hardy Lin, together with the other two team members Lu Xiujuan, a PhD student of Associate Professor Marcelo Ang, and Pengjun, have spent 10 months researching this robot, going through two prototypes before finally coming out with the right formula.

"The first robot could not climb steps and slopes very well. The second one was not efficient enough as its arms could only move up and down," said Dr Xia. But he managed to invent an "Omni Arm" — a multipurpose arm which can do cleaning job as well as help the robot climb steps — a movement which is required in the cleaning process. "We also need robots which can do the job well in very tight spaces, so robots which need wide working space are out," he added.

Dr Xia and his team members are developing modular robots to suit different sized ducts. Industrial air-conditioning ducts can be huge — measuring one metre high and two metres wide or even larger. "Conventional cleaning robots are manipulated using a joystick or pushbutton and the communication is generally one-sided, from the controller to the machine. But our robot is designed with the latest technology called the 'master-slave system'. This allows for a two-way communication system, with feedback from the robot to the controller. With this communication in place, monitoring the robot's progress is minimal — as the robot updates the controller on its progress and movements," he said.

Dr Xia's team was a finalist at the Association of Pacific Rim Universities Doctoral Student (APRU) Enterprise Business Plan Competition held in conjunction with the 7th APRU Doctoral Student Conference held at NUS.

"Cleaning the ventilation ducts well is extremely important if we do not want the sick-building syndrome. We have found all sorts of things accumulated within the ducts, dead animals besides dust and chemical and bacteria build-up. So it is important to have a really efficient cleaning system," said Dr Xia.

"We concentrate on selling the robots now, but in future we may go into providing air quality audit, consultancy, and cleaning service as well. Besides Singapore, we have some interested clients in China, India, and the Philippines. Eventually, I may invent more robots for home care, security, and surveillance. After all, Bill Gates had said recently that it's the robotic age now, with the end of the PC era," said Dr Xia who did his basic degree in aerospace at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"Some of the technologies I learned in aerospace can be transferred to robotics," said Dr Xia who obtained his Master of Science in Mechatronics in NUS as well. He is also thinking of developing robots which can perform the dangerous task of bomb disposal. "I am working towards a 'seven degree-of-freedom' robot manipulator!" he said.

Generally speaking, degree-of-freedom (DOF) refers to the total number of positions and orientations in which a robot end-effector can move in three-dimension space. A seven degree-of-freedom robot would give the arm a whole lot more versatility and dexterity.

"One of the drawbacks of many commercialized robots is that, each joint needs to be manipulated separately in order for the arm to perform its function. That's not easy. However, with our advanced control technology, all the joints can be controlled simultaneously and precisely," said Dr Xia.

Source: http://www.eng.nus.edu.sg/research/Research_Gallery/research76.htm

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