Tensegrity robot can crawl into air ducts to clean them

By now, robot vacuum cleaners are no longer the oddity or novelty they were a few years ago, but despite their hi-tech functionality, they are mostly limited to cleaning the ground you walk on. Trying to keep ventilation and air ducts clean is an impossible task for these robots, given the cramped spaces and vertical elevations involved in the process. Enter DuCTT, or the Duct Climbing Tetrahedral Tensegrity robot, taking lessons learned from NASA's robotics research to keep the indoor air you breathe clean and healthy.

Tensegrity is a portmanteau of the words "tension" and "integrity". In this particular application, this basically means that the robot is composed of rigid rods and cables that contract and expand in order to move. This type of construction was demonstrated by NASA Ames a good two years ago as part of its research into future robots that will traverse the uneasy and unknown terrain of other planets and heavenly bodies.

But who said those same principles can't be put to work right here on earth? University of California San Diego Ph. D. student Jeffrey Friesen constructed such a robot made from tetrahedrons. It was designed to specifically climb air ducts by first anchoring its top half, pulling its bottom half upward, and then anchoring its bottom half while the upper half expands upward. Why would anyone want to have robots climb air ducts? Definitely not for spying purposes as the DuCTT is quite noisy.

According to the EPA, yes the same Environmental Protection Agency investigating Volkswagen, the dirty indoor air that go through these ducts can cost businesses a total of $60 billion annually. That's definitely no small amount but it is one that can't easily be remedied without cost. Cleaning air ducts usually involve some dismantling of ceilings and structures, a process that takes time as well as money. Imagine getting a robot such as this to do that instead.

That said, the DuCTT isn't yet fit for cleaning. All it can do now is crawl through those ducts. It does have room in its tubes for sensors and some extra space for cleaning materials or mechanisms, like compressed air or sweepers. But for now, climbing is the best thing it can do. The double tetrahedral design employed by Friesen is inspired by human's own shoulder joints, which could be a topic of further research for robotics. DuCTT is currently made of aluminum and carbon fiber at the joints instead of the former 3D printed parts used by a prototype after said prototype was shattered by a single accidental drop.