Despite what various spy movies may have us believe, sending people into buildings' ductwork isn't a good idea. That said, those ducts do need to be cleaned periodically, otherwise the human inhabitants of the buildings can develop serious respiratory problems. Robots have been designed to do the job, although they've generally been wheeled or tracked devices that can only move horizontally. Now, however, scientists at UC San Diego's Jacob's School of Engineering have created DucTT – a highly-efficient robot that can climb up ducts, and run for up to six hours on one charge of its battery pack.
Developed in the lab of mechanical engineering professor Thomas Bewley by a team led by PhD student Jeffrey Friesen, DucTT (Duct Climbing Tetrahedral Tensegrity) is what's what's known as a tensegrity robot. This means that it's composed of an extending and contracting arrangement of cable-connected tubes, not unlike the tensioned frame of a pop-up tent. Such robots are known for being structurally light, and flexible.
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DucTT itself takes the form of two joined tetrahedrons. It inches its way along – both horizontally and vertically – by first extending the front/top tetrahedron and bracing it against the inside of the duct, then pulling the rear/bottom tetrahedron up to join it, and then bracing that one while the first section extends again.
It can reportedly negotiate junctions in ductwork independently, making turns without any human guidance.
The untethered robot's electronics, actuators, batteries and strain gauges are all sealed within its tubes, keeping them safe from damage or contamination. Although DucTT doesn't contain any actual duct-cleaning gear in its current form, it would presumably be a relatively simple matter to equip it with rotating brushes or an air compressor.
You can see the robot in action, in the video below.