NMSU engineering professor receives Department of Energy grant

Ehsan Dehghan Niri, an assistant professor in New Mexico State University’s Department of Civil Engineering, has received a three-year, $400,00 grant from the United States Department of Energy. In collaboration with Arizona State University, Dehghan Niri is leading a project to create a bio-inspired robot to inspect tubular structures in coal power plants. (NMSU photo by Vladimir Avina)

WRITER: Tiffany Acosta

New Mexico State University Department of Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ehsan Dehghan Niri has received a United States Department of Energy grant. This is a three-year award for $400,000 and is a collaboration with Arizona State University.

Dehghan Niri is the principal investigator on the research project that will focus on creating a bio-inspired robot – the Lizard-inspired Tube Inspector – to inspect tubular structures for cracking and corrosion in coal power plants.

“Our infrastructure is aging,” Dehghan Niri said. “Every single piece of machinery we have is aging – aviation, aircraft are aging, bridges, power plants. We had a boost in industry years ago, and they built all of those giant infrastructures. We’re getting to the point that all of those are really in bad shape now.”

The goal of this project is to build a robot with friction-based mobility that uses advanced point-based ultrasound imaging. Dehghan Niri’s team at NMSU will work on the ultrasound and nondestructive testing aspect of the project, while Hamidreza Marvi, co-principal investigator and a mechanical and aerospace assistant professor at ASU, and his team will work on the robotics.

“We are proposing convergence of two advanced robotics and nondestructive testing methods,” Dehghan Niri said. “If you combine these two, the gripper or lizard’s legs, when they touch a surface, can use our algorithm to image while they are climbing. So what happens is you don’t have to have a typical point-by-point ultrasound testing to test the entire cross section of a tube as it is going up, it can image the whole tube from few points as the LTI robot climbs. The convergence of these two technologies enables us to have a really fast and economical inspection. We might be able to create a robot to go into power plant units such as a Heat Recovery Steam Generator and do this inspection without a major overhaul.”

Dehghan Niri said the LTI robot’s design is inspired by lizards, who have evolved their mobility and sensing capabilities for millions of years.

While robotic inspections often use magnetic wheel mobility and point-by-point inspection systems, this project will allow the robot to perform ultrasound imaging using signals generated and received by the LTI robot’s grippers that can scan areas between and around the grippers.

“We can control the movement of the robot based on our technology,” he said. “We can direct them – don’t put your foot here, put it there – because we want to change the coverage area for more damage prone zones. So we are controlling, basically giving them another piece of information for mobility, for movement.”

NMSU’s group also will focus on developing a couplant-free ultrasound sensing system for the robot’s grippers. Typically, a liquid couplant helps the transmission of ultrasonic energy from the transducer into the test specimen. For example, the gel applied when pregnant women have prenatal ultrasounds is a couplant.

Dehghan Niri said another possible obstacle for the project could be overcoming the differences in disciplines, but he is optimistic this is just the beginning of the collaboration.

“Whenever two different areas of science try to converge you always have a lot of challenges,” he said. “We tried to create a specific managing plan to overcome this challenge.”


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