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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Robotic Utility Mapper Reduces Costs, Improves Safety During Infrastructure Planning and Maintenance

“Aside from creating new business opportunities through the RUMI project alone, this SBIR project has also allowed our company to develop new capabilities in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality,” said Dr. Devendra Tolani, Senior Director of the Signals, Analysis, and Control Division.

The Challenge

Underground utility lines are frequently damaged by construction equipment, which can create significant problems for utility construction companies. Breaking a gas line with an excavator or a drill head, for instance, can lead to catastrophic events. The ability to accurately locate and provide awareness of buried utilities is therefore extremely necessary for utility companies and other stakeholders of underground spaces, such as city planners, construction companies, transportation authorities, and archaeologists. 

Unfortunately, in old cities especially, the records of buried utilities are often inaccurate, inadequate, outdated, or entirely unavailable due to insufficient surveying methodologies or as-built recording practices. The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program recognized this challenge and sought to address it through its annual Phase I Solicitation. 

In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sponsored a project that would create a precise underground utility mapping and inspection system. Intelligent Automation, Inc., a BlueHalo company out of Rockville, Maryland, was awarded funding for the project and developed the Robotic Utility Mapping and Inspection (RUMI) system.

Small Business: Intelligent Automation, Inc., a BlueHalo Company
Location: Rockville, Maryland
Project: Robotic Utility Mapping and Inspection System (RUMI)
Funding Agency: Federal Highway Administration
Phase I: $150,000
Phase II: $1,000,000
Phase IIB: $993,906

The Technology

The Robotic Utility Mapping and Inspection System drives on 4 wheels and is equipped with a ground-penetrating radar, GPS receiver, stereo camera, and 3D LiDAR sensor.
The current RUMI mobile ground robot. (Intelligent Automation photo)

RUMI combines advanced sensor technology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) technologies into a subsurface utility mapping and inspection solution. This mobile ground robot uses a ground penetrating radar (GPR) and suite of sensors to autonomously scan a region for underground utility lines.

At the same time, a human operator can remain in a safe location that is far from potential hazards near the robot, which could include moving vehicles. 

Shortly after the scan, a 3D visualization of the collected underground data is created and can be viewed on a mobile device with AR projection to support infrastructure planning and asset management activities.

This data is critical for transportation planners and can be used while designing transit and roadway projects. 

The Future

Intelligent Automation, Inc. is scheduled to complete Phase IIB of its SBIR award in December 2021. Since Phase II, RUMI’s hardware has been redesigned to be more rugged and capable of operating in harsh environments. According to RUMI’s team, the next steps for the project include product testing in operational environments as well as system calibration and performance optimization. 

From there, the team hopes to move towards commercialization by improving the deployment workflow, developing a product support plan and a production quality control plan, and ultimately conducting outreach and commercialization activities. In the near-term, Intelligent Automation, Inc. will offer scanning services for-hire, while in the long-term, it plans to perform direct product sales to both public and private organizations. 

The Impact

The goal of RUMI is to lower the cost of utility mapping services and subsurface asset collection while also increasing safety. Robotic technology will allow stakeholders to scan areas more quickly and with fewer personnel, lowering the cost of underground mapping for utility companies, transportation planners, and others. The technology also improves personnel safety, as RUMI’s human operators can be located away from hazards in the scan region, such as moving vehicles and transit lines and potentially dangerous utilities, including gas lines and water supply lines. Accidentally hitting an underground utility can delay infrastructure projects, and some incidents may significantly harm both project personnel and the surrounding community.

Additionally, precise utility mapping is critical for ensuring project timeliness.

As transportation departments and infrastructure owner-operators move toward lifecycle-based infrastructure asset management, RUMI will be able to provide subsurface asset data similar to the way unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and terrestrial/aerial LIDAR provide above-surface information. RUMI will also provide a convenient workflow for on-site recording of utility construction work.

Reducing the costs associated with utility mapping can also encourage the underground relocation of existing utilities, which reduces the number of roadside hazards for drivers. According to the Federal Highway Administration, hitting a utility pole is the most harmful event in over 2 percent of all U.S. traffic fatalities each year. Technologies like RUMI make it easier and less expensive to map existing utilities, allowing organizations to reliably place additional buried utilities in a cost-effective way.

How SBIR Helps

“Aside from creating new business opportunities through the RUMI project alone, this SBIR project has also allowed our company to develop new capabilities in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality,” said Dr. Devendra Tolani, senior director of Intelligent Automation’s Signals, Analysis, and Control Division.

Because of the SBIR program, Intelligent Automation, Inc. was able to hire engineers in robotics, augmented reality, and virtual reality. Additionally, the company was put in a position to engage with state and other federal agencies interested in this technology. 

About SBIR

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s highly competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program awards contracts to domestic small businesses to pursue research on and develop innovative solutions to transportation challenges.

Moreover, the SBIR program encourages small businesses to engage in federal research/research and development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization. The program awards contracts in two phases, and it recognizes a third phase leading up to commercialization. See Past Solicitations and Awardees for more information.

Last updated: Monday, October 25, 2021