Robo-Inspector Fends Off Flooding

Purchasing a $60,000 mobile video robot to inspect stormwater pipes didn’t fit into Horsham Township’s budget. So officials turned to Abington engineering majors, who delivered Stormbot on time and way, way under budget.
By: Regina Broscius
Penn State Abington engineering students solve real problems for real clients. They hone their technical skills, interact with users, and manage field trials before they graduate.

Charged with maintaining critical infrastructure in Horsham Township, Public Works Director Dennis Haggerty wanted a cost-effective and flexible option to examine stormwater pipes, which helps prevent flooding and erosion.

“We hired outside contractors in the past, but it’s expensive,” he said. “We borrowed a camera, but it wasn’t ideal.”

He realized that a custom video inspection robot wouldn’t just wash up in his office so when he learned Abington students earn degrees from the Penn State College of Engineering, he contacted a faculty member with a proposal.

“I thought this could be good for everyone. We form a partnership with Abington students who get to test their skills in real life situations, and we get the video robot.” — Dennis Haggerty, Horsham Township

Underground Isn't Out of Sight

Penn State Abington general engineering majors developed the mobile video robot at the request of Horsham Township to inspect storm water pipes. This field test demonstrates some of its capabilities.

Bob Avanzato, associate professor of engineering, called Stormbot perfect for his senior robot design course in the general engineering multidisciplinary engineering design (MDE) option.

Haggerty provided them with data, videos, images, and samples of piping material. The students kept in close contact with their client as they developed a robot to meet the township’s requirements — just as they will once they graduate.

Haggerty's requirements included:  

  • The robot's camera must pan and tilt, returning HD video and still images.
  • A console allows the user operates the robot and maneuvers the camera from above ground.
  • Workers must be able to review the video transmission live as they search for compromises and obstructions in pipes.
  • An emergency cable in case it needs to be removed by hand.

“It was exciting for the students to see concepts from classes come together.” — Robert Avanzato, associate professor of engineering

engineering Great Valley

Senior Cara Fiala and other students from Abington and Penn State Brandywine spend their final four semesters in the new general engineering facility at Penn State Great Valley. They also must complete an internship.

Credit: Mike McDade

Finally, it was time for the field test. Haggerty and township workers released the robot into two residential storm pipes while Avanzato and senior Charles Liggett guided them, ready to troubleshoot.

As expected, Stormbot steered clear of debris and maneuvered around obstacles including bricks and a toy rocket. The LED lighting supported the video quality and highlighted areas workers wanted to explore further. 

“The results were very positive, and the Horsham people were very pleased with the results," Avanzato said. "We had some minor issues, but in each case, the robot moved between 100 and 150 feet within the pipe.”

“It’s a working prototype and will be brought up to industry-ready conditions,” — Charles Liggett, senior general engineering major 

Charles Liggett, a Penn State Abington senior in the multidisciplinary engineering program, and Horsham Public Works Director Dennis Haggerty review the Stormbot video on the console at the field test.

Credit: Penn State

Several weeks later, Avanzato and his students sat in the audience while Haggerty presented the near-final version of the robot to the Horsham Township Council.

“The quality is high for post-processing the video and analyzing snapshots,” Haggerty told council members who supported the results and the partnership with Abington.

In the end, Haggerty said he was glad he didn’t follow his first impulse — attaching a GoPro to his son’s remote control car and letting it loose in the pipes. 

“The Penn State students built something amazing. The results are valuable and useful and so is the relationship." — Dennis Haggerty, Horsham Township

engineering robotics

Horsham Township official Dennis Haggerty holds Stormbot, which Penn State Abington and Brandywine senior engineering students developed with guidance from Bob Avanzato, associate professor of engineering (right).


Credit: Penn State

Building the Horsham Stormbot

About General Engineering and Multidisciplinary Engineering Design (MDE) 

The MDE option of the Penn State general engineering degree is delivered by a consortium composed of Penn State Abington, Penn State Brandywine, and Penn State Great Valley. Students graduate with a bachelor of science degree from the Penn State College of Engineering.

The $2.5 million engineering facility where students take their final two years of coursework is located at Great Valley, about 30 miles from Abington. Shuttle service from Abington to Great Valley is available.

The general engineering program is accredited by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.