America's bridges are not—we're sorry to report—doing so great. Of the over 600,000 bridges in the U.S., more than half are over 30 years old, and 11 percent are structurally deficient. That makes inspecting bridges all the more important; unfortunately, the underside of a bridge is also pretty damn inaccessible to humans. Who might be better at that? A swarm of tiny bots.
At the University of Maryland's Microrobotics Laboratory, a group of scientists are creating the bridge-inspection swarm of the future. They hope to send autonomous bots scurrying along a bridge to gather data on the bridge's structural stability. So far, they've made mouse-sized prototypes that zoom around obstacles, like ones it may encounter on the underside of a bridge, with ease.
The key, then, is to create a robot this agile that can also scurry around upside down. Sarah Bergbreiter, one of the professors heading up the project, tells Popular Science they're working on a number of adhesion strategies, including gecko-inspired hairs and electroadhesion. The team is currently at the start of a three-year, $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to turn their tiny bots on land into professional bridge inspectors.
In the meantime, the self-driving robot cars of the future will surely be glad to know that tiny robot inspectors have their backs. [Popular Science]
Top image: A bridge that collapsed in Washington last year. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File