Suction cup robot climbs non-magnetic surfaces

For those tough to reach areas, this inspection robot goes where others can't.

How do you get a robot to inspect a tank with high vertical walls? If the walls are made of certain kinds of metal, you just stick a magnet on it.

But many large tanks utilized in the food & beverage and chemical industries, for example, are made of materials like stainless steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, or glass, which don't attract magnets. That means humans have had to perform the hazardous job of inspection, which can result in occupational injuries.

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A New Zealand robotics firm called Invert Robotics has a solution: A robot that adheres to a surface via a sliding suction cup. Now the company is sucking up cash. Invert just got some venture love in the form of an $8.8 million financing in a round led by agtech venture firm Finistere with support from Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, which it will use to expand its reach in industries like aerospace.

"Our climbing robots go where other robots cannot and people should not," said Invert Robotics Managing Director Neil Fletcher. "Industrial accidents can be costly and sometimes even deadly, but they are often preventable. Remote inspection solutions that take into account chemical corrosion and high-pressure processing scenarios can help chemical companies improve worker safety, optimize maintenance and avoid future tragedies."

Not a lot has been published about the company's sliding suction cup technology. The suction cups are passive, meaning they don't require a vacuum pump, reducing weight and power consumption, which are longstanding enemies of robots. (That's doubly true for climbing robots.)

According to a patent filed by company founders, the passive suction cups are depressed by an actuator in the direction of a climbing surface, like the inside wall of a tank. The outside of the cups is made of a material with a friction coefficient low enough to allow the suction cups to slide. To imagine how this might happen, consider how a suction cup stuck to the inside of a wet shower can be moved around a tile wall without breaking the suction cup's vacuum seal.

Invert's robots can perform surface-wave scans and use ultrasonic probes to measure wall thickness and assess structural integrity. In addition to food & beverage and chemical customers, aerospace customers use Invert's robots to inspect aluminum aircraft for small stress cracks. 

The New Zealand company will use the investment money to scale its team and open a U.S. office.