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Robotics is one of the fastest growing engineering fields of today. Robots are
designed to remove the human factor from labour intensive or dangerous work and also
to act in inaccessible environment. The use of robots is more common today than ever
before and it is no longer exclusively used by the heavy production industries. The
inspection of pipes may be relevant for improving security and efficiency in industrial
plants. These specific operations as inspection, maintenance, cleaning etc. are expensive,
thus the application of the robots appears to be one of the most attractive solutions. The
pipe-lines are the major tools for the transportation of drinkable water, effluent water,
fuel oils and gas. A lot of troubles caused by piping networks aging, corrosion, cracks,
and mechanical damages are possible. So, continuous activities for inspection,
maintenance and repair are strongly demanded. If a pipeline carrying water springs a leak
bursts, it can be a problem but it usually doesn't harm the environment. However, if a
petroleum or chemical pipeline leaks, it can be a environmental disaster.

Today, there are wide spread use of pipelines for transporting or delivering gas,
water, oil, or other fluidic materials. Such pipe lines are inside our houses (or high-rise
towers), underground, below the sea bed, or through a mountain. Over a period of
operation, various problems may occur inside pipelines due to ageing, corrosion, and
external impact. Some of the most common failure modes are corrosion, pitting, crack,
dents, ovalization or deformation. In order to extend the life expectancy of pipelines and
to avoid unexpected accidents caused by such failure modes, regular inspection inside
pipeline grid is practiced by most companies involved in gas, water, or oil supplies.
Whenever a problem is spotted, rehabilitation or repair jobs must be done inside pipes.
Due to the small space, long distance, and hazardous environment inside pipes, the
application of robots for such jobs is considered as the most attractive solution.

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In pipe robots



These mobile robots or mechanisms can normally be classified into seven types based on
their locomotion methods, including pig type, wheeled type, caterpillar type, walking
type, inchworm type, screw type and snake type. Each type of the design has some
advantages over others in some aspects. The actual design adopted might depend on the
task space of the required applications. Among them, screw type is a good choice when
the pipe’s diameter is small. This is because that the screw mechanism is simple and
compact. It can easily be designed to work with only one actuator, thus reducing the
weight of the screw drive and simplifying the motion control.

Fig 2.1 Types of In-pipe Robots

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In pipe robots

Due to the small space and harsh environment of the oil/gas wells, not all of the above-
mentioned in-pipe robot mechanisms could be used for downhole robot design. The
specific working environment of a downhole in-pipe robot can be summarized as follows:

(1) Large payload: the larger the better. Currently, 2500N payload in small pipe diameter
of 54mm is achievable by commercial robots.

(2) High pressure: depending on the depth of the well, the downhole pressure could be as
high as 100MPa.

(3) High temperature: up to 200°C is possible.

(4) Highly corrosive environment: drilling mud is composed of water, carbon dioxide,
acid, and hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) which are highly corrosive.

(5) Small pipe size: there is a range of oil well pipe diameter. The smaller ones can be as
small as 54mm in diameter.

(6) Pipe bend: the bend is not very drastic. Nevertheless, a long robot is prohibited as it
may cause inference at such bends;

(7) Pipe deformation and uneven material sediment/ accumulation inside pipe: this
exhibits a demand for driving mechanisms that must be adaptive to such irregularity
inside the well pipe.

(8) High reliability and operation safety: Due to the hazardous environment and
potentially high financial implication of any malfunction, the downhole robots must
operate with high reliability and safety.

(9) Deep down inside the ground: the actual path of the well may take many shapes
(spiral paths have been reported). The overall length of a well path inside the ground can
easily reach 5000m (combined vertical and horizontal).

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Inspiration of the pipe unclogging snake



Plumbers fix clogged pipes using a very simple tool named ‘snake’ as shown in Figure
3.1(a). The snake can be as long as 10 m or more. Even though very simple, the snake
can fit into pipes with a large range of diameters as shown in Figure 3.1(b). When the
snake wiggles into a pipe, it forms helical coils against the pipe as shown in Figure 3.2.
When the plumber keeps rotating the hand H, the snake will be pushed forwards and
forms more helical coils inside the pipe.

Figure 3.1. Snake fit into pipes: (a) snake and (b) inside a pipe.

The following is just a simple explanation of why the snake can move deep inside a pipe.

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Inspiration of the pipe unclogging snake

Figure 3.2. Illustrative diagram showing the snake inside a pipe

When the snake is rotated at the handle H as in Figure 2, the snake becomes longer and
exerts a force at the first contact point C between the snake and the pipe. The spring force
F at the first contact point C can be resolved into an axial force Fa and a normal force N.
The spring force at point C is F=k.Dx and the friction at position C is f = mN, where k is
the spring constant of the spring, m is the coefficient of friction at the contact point and
Dx is the spring length pushed out by turning the handle H. When Fa > f , the point C
will move forward, and the section BC will be compressed. The spring energy at the
section BC will build up as point C keeps moving forward and eventually will lead to the
forward motion of point B. Point B will repeat the pattern of point C, until the force is
propagated to the front most point at point A. If the handle H is kept turning, a longer
snake with more helical coils will be formed inside the pipe. Thus, the snake can travel
deep inside a pipe. The diameter of the helical coils is adaptive to the pipe diameter.

Department of Mechanical Engineering
Variable radius active screw drive mechanism design




Inspired by the pipe unclogging snake, a novel mechanism driven by only one motor is
proposed. Spring presses wheels firmly against the pipe wall so as to generate an axial
force Fa and a normal force N, which are similar to Figure 3.2. Function of variable
radius makes the mechanism adapt to the pipe diameter changes. Two planetary gear
transmission is used instead of the pure frictional transmission to get higher transmission
efficiency and more accurate trajectory. Compared to the pipe unclogging snake, this
novel variable radius screw drive mechanism allows the robot go ahead, without the
overall length limitation. Figure 4.1 shows the overall system design concept. The system
has four major parts. The first is the motor that provides the power for driving the robot.
The second is the stabilizer that keeps the whole system stable when it is moving.

Figure 4.1. Overall concept diagram

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Variable radius active screw drive mechanism design

Figure 4.2. Contact Force Control Mechanism.

Figure 4.3. Driving Mechanism Diagram

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Variable radius active screw drive mechanism design

The third one is the planetary gear set 1 that has three planet gears and transmit power to
the planetary gear set 2. The last one is the planetary gear set 2 (three gears with modified
teeth) that provides the driving force for the system to move along the axis direction of
the pipe. Both the stabilizer and the planetary gear set 2 have a spring force to keep the
wheels or gears in firm contact with the pipe. In order to provide a driving force, the
gears (can be treated as wheels) on the second planetary gear set are tilted an angle as
shown in Figure 4.1 and 4.3 so that when the wheels rotate, they rotate in a helical path.
The helical motion of the three gears provides a driving force along the axis of the pipe.
The driving force is ensured by the mechanism that can keep the gears in firm contact
with the pipe as in Figure 4.2.

Figure 4.4. Structure of novel variable radius screw drive robot: (a) front view and
(b) side view.

Since the whole robotic system is driven by the helical motion of the planetary gear set 2
(hereafter they are called the driving gears), the following will mainly focus on
discussing the basic principle of the driving gears. Figure 4 shows the three-dimensional
drawing of the driving gear set design. All of the three gears can be inclined along their
respective axis as shown in Figure 4.4(a) and 4.4(b). The larger the pipe diameter, the
more the gears will incline outward. In Figure 5(a), the three inner circles represent the

Department of Mechanical Engineering
Variable radius active screw drive mechanism design

three gears at their initial position.

Figure 4.5. Geometric parameters of the in-pipe robot: (a) original driving gears
position and inclined position and (b) definition of driving gear’s inclination angle.

When they are used for a pipe tracking as indicated by the largest circle in Figure 4.5(a),
the three gears must be inclined to have firm contact with the pipe. The inclination angle
of the three gears is shown in Figure 4.5(b). In Figure 4.5(a), the radius of the pipe is R,
the radius of the driving gear is r, the distance between the axis of the pipe and the axis of
a driving gear when it is at its initial position is d, the distance between the axis of the
supporting rod and the axis of a driving gear when it is at its original position is d0. In
Figure 4.5(b), we can see that the axis of a driving gear is along the pipe centre line at the
initial position. After inclination outward for an angle y, the driving gears look elliptic
along the pipe axis.

Department of Mechanical Engineering
Variable radius active screw drive mechanism design

Figure 4.6. Screw trajectory of the driving gear

In the following analysis, we assume that the axis of the pipe is vertical while a plane that
is perpendicular to this axis is a horizontal plane. The robot is moving along the pipe. In
Figure 4.6, a driving gear’s position and its trajectory are shown. At the moment, the
contact point of the driving gear on the pipe wall is R. When the robot is moving in the
pipe, the driving gear’s trajectory on the pipe is helical, as is indicated in Figure 4.6

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Based on the concept, a prototype variable radius screw drive in-pipe robot is developed
as shown in Figure 5.2. We can clearly see that this mechanism has four parts:

(1) planetary gearing set 1: the first set transfer motion from the motor to the second set;
(2) the second gear set has three driving gears that move in helical trajectory along the
pipe wall;

(3) motor: the actuating device (Maxon motor, diameter 36 mm, length 60 mm, voltage
24 V, power 60 W, unload speed 170 rpm);

(4) stabilizer: it is made up of three guide wheels to guarantee that the motor and
stabilizer only moves along the axis of the pipe with no rotation.

In order to compare the performance of the presented in pipe helical tracking robot with
that of the previous helical robots, experiments on tracking forces are measured. A
sample popular previous helical drive in-pipe robot design

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Figure 5.1. Popular helical in pipe robot

shown in Figure 5.1 is used here for comparison. Figure 5.1(a) is the diagram showing
the previous helical drive robot. It has one motor that drives the links of three wheels.
The wheels are tilted an angle so that they can move in a helical path when they rotate.

Figure 5.2. Prototype of new design

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Figure 5.3. Experiment setup

A prototype of the in-pipe robot is shown in Figure 5.1(b). The experiments for driving
force test are conducted as shown in Figure 5.2(a). Figure 5.1(b) shows a snapshot of the
test process. It is found that the design in Figure 5.2 can only carry a maximum load of up
16 N while the one presented in this research can carry a maximum load up to 500 N.
From the experimental results, it can be seen that the one shown in this research can carry
a much larger load (over 30 times) than the previously popular helical drive design.

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Results and discussions


It is found that the old design can only carry a maximum load of up 16 N while the one
presented in this research can carry a maximum load up to 500 N.

Figure 5.4. Experiment in progress

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Results and discussions

Figure 5.5. Foot print on the internal pipe wall.

From the experiment results, it can be seen that the new design can carry a much larger
load (over 30 times) than the previously popular helical drive design.

Department of Mechanical Engineering


In this article, analysis of a new variable radius helical drive mechanism has been
presented. Unlike the most existing screw drive mechanisms reported previously, this
new designed mechanism adopts two sets of planetary gears to drive the mechanism (one
set for power transmission and the other set for providing traction). Each driving gear
rotates about its axis actively similar to the planet gear of a planetary gear system.
Different parameters of the new mechanism are deduced including screw angle, pitch and
forward or backward moving velocity. By comparison using experiments, we find that
this new variable radius screw drive mechanism can provide much larger traction force
than the existing helical drive mechanism under condition that the two mechanisms have
the same dimension and same motor output. However, each driving wheel is connected
by a universal joint that is rotating at an irregular speed, which may induce motion
interference of the three driving wheels. But it has little effect on the rotation speed in the
case of small radius driving wheel. In-pipe robot with the ability of passing through small
bends usually lose the ability of large tractive force, which will help carry more tools to
accomplish inspection and rehabilitation jobs in pipes. The current design of the driving
mechanisms and the use of long motor result in an in-pipe robot with large tractive force
in this article. However, the present design and geometry lose the ability of going through
small pipe bends. In recent years, the authors did some research on the variable pitch
helical drive mechanism to pass through curved pipes better. Future work will focus on
adding pressure sensors to the driving wheels so that to make the proposed robot be
adaptive to pipe diameter or shape changes as well as solving the problem of motion
interference. In addition, the performance of going through small pipe bends without
losing large tractive force will be improved in the future work.

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