NTU’s New Inspection Robot to Be Tested in JTC’s Industrial Developments

inspection robot
Robot co-developed by NTU, JTC and CtrlWorks, with funding from NRF

New buildings in Singapore may soon have a high-tech building inspector rolling up to their door steps armed with laser scanners and high-tech cameras that can spot the tiniest cracks and defects.

This new building inspector is a robot invented by scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), co-developed with Singapore’s national industrial developer JTC and local start-up CtrlWorks.

Named QuicaBot – short for Quality Inspection and Assessment Robot – it can move autonomously to scan a room in about half the time taken for manual inspection, using high-tech cameras and laser scanners to pick up building defects like cracks and uneven surfaces.

A few of these robots working together will make inspecting a building a breeze. The robots can upload 3D data of the scans to the cloud and inform the human operator, who can then inspect critical and complex defects.

The new robot was developed in one year at the NTU Robotic Research Centre, and is supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore, under its Test-Bedding and Demonstration of Innovative Research funding initiative. The initiative provides funding to facilitate public sector’s development and deployment of technologies that have the potential to enhance service delivery.

Project leader Asst Prof Erdal Kayacan, from NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said their key aim is to automate and speed up the building inspection process according to standards set by the Building & Construction Authority.

“Visual inspection of a new building is an intensive effort that takes two inspectors, so we have designed a robot to assist a human inspector to do his job in about half the time, saving precious time and manpower, and with great accuracy and consistency,” explained Prof Kayacan.

“The robot can scan an entire room to detect defects according to stringent and consistent standards, and then upload its data in 3D into a database. This means all defects will have their visual and detailed measurements recorded automatically, which can be accessed by the inspectors and the building owners.”

Mr Koh Chwee, Director, Technical Services Division of JTC and Co-Director of the NTU-JTC Industrial Infrastructure Innovation Centre (I3C), said that through collaborations with academic institutions like NTU on innovative technologies, JTC hopes to enhance construction productivity for industrial infrastructure projects.

“The use of such automation in construction projects can go a long way in raising the quality of inspections and alleviating the manpower crunch faced by the construction industry. JTC hopes that QuicaBot can enable high quality inspections that are more precise and consistent, while reducing the manpower and time needed to conduct such inspections.,” said Mr Koh.

Mr George Loh, Director (Programmes), NRF Singapore said, “NRF’s Test-Bedding and Demonstration of Innovative Research funding initiative seeks to identify technologies that have a strong potential to address a Singapore need. The public sector can drive the adoption of such disruptive technologies that provide solutions for real-life problems. We are excited that NTU and its partners have successfully integrated high-tech sensors with robotics technologies to meet to a specific need in the building and construction industry, with the great potential to improve productivity through accurate detection of defects.”

Quick fault-finding robot

Common building defects include cracks on walls and ceilings, unevenness in the floor and walls, hollow tiles, and walls that may not be exactly square (i.e. not set at a 90-degree angle).

To detect them manually, a building inspector will have measurement tools like a spirit level and set square.

Tackling the same challenges with higher accuracy, the QuicaBot, which can operate for three days with two hours of charging, also has its own arsenal of high tech tools. They include:

1) small laser scanner for navigation and mapping
2) large laser scanner to inspect walls evenness and squareness
3) Inclinometer to check evenness of the floor
4) thermal infrared camera to check for hollowness in tiles
5) small standard colour camera to detect cracks on walls

To enable quick and nimble movements around the room, the team worked with CtrlWorks to develop the robot’s mobile platform.

Professor Chen I-Ming, Director of the NTU Robotic Research Centre and co-leader of the project, said the robot has already done well in simulated environments.

“Using cameras and lasers which are more accurate than manual measurements, our robot has shown that it is able to assess the interior architectural defects of a building according to existing industry standards,” said Prof Chen.

For the next phase of development, QuicaBot will be test-bedded at suitable locations within JTC’s industrial developments like JTC Space @ Gul, supported by the NTU-JTC I3C.

Established in 2011, the NTU-JTC I3C aims to pioneer cutting-edge industrial infrastructure solutions to address challenges faced by Singapore and its companies such as safety, productivity as well as manpower and resource constraints.