Robot uses heat to strip rubber off nuclear submarines

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The ICM system uses two Climber robots working in concert(Credit: International Climbing Machines (ICM))

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In 2007, International Climbing Machines (ICM) unveiled its Climber robot, which can scale walls and rounded surfaces using a patented seal system. Now, it's trying to interest the US Navy in using robots to take over the nasty job of stripping away the rubber anti-sonar cladding from the nuclear submarine fleet using a method that is both cheaper and safer than current procedures.

Though modern nuclear submarine fleets need to listen for potential enemies, they also need to remain as silent and undetectable to others as possible. To counter enemy sonar, submarines are covered in thick, rubber-like tiles to dampen the boat's own noise while absorbing incoming sonar pings so they can't reflect back to the sender. The exact nature of these tiles is classified, but what isn't is that removing them is an unpleasant and hazardous job.

ICM has been conducting trials for the Navy of a tile-removal system that's based on the company's Climber robot line. These small robots are remote controlled and can climb walls, ceilings, or rounded surfaces using a seal system that allows the 30-lb (13.6-kg) machines to climb while exerting a pull of over 335 lb (152 kg).

For submarine cleaning, ICM paired two of the robots carrying a load of 85 lb (39 kg). With the boat secured in dry dock, the robots climb over the hull while a cutter using heat induction technology softens the rubber tiles and strips them away without the need for sandblasting, high-pressure water, or abrasive discs. The company also says that it does not create secondary waste.

According to ICM, the robots can climb over obstacles and irregularities and their use not only saves money and time, but also eliminates the need to expose workers to hazardous conditions while allowing the operator to stand at a safe distance with a handheld controller.

"ICM has been tracking this potential use for many years so this is a big opportunity for us to show what we can do," says Samuel Maggio, president of ICM. "We delivered the robot back in April and it has worked out very well so far and we await more feedback from the Navy on field trials. All indications have been very positive, the combined remote-controlled technology has done what no one else has done before. This could change everything."

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