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Mason students operate a robot in a drainage pipe

Mechanical engineering students work with Mason Facilities Management to design a robotic system to scout inside the Fairfax Campus storm drains. The project was designed to help monitor and maintain the system to keep it at peak efficiency.

Thunder Rat Scurries Through Drains to Help Clear Debris

When a storm drain clogs on campus, it’s Thunder Rat to the rescue. The custom-made robot, armed with a camera, lights, and a water-resistant chassis, explores dark underground drains, looking for the leaves, debris, and garbage that block water flow.

“He’s a robot doing what a human can’t,” says Kristin Lewis, BS Mechanical Engineering ’18.

Lewis and three other seniors in the Mechanical Engineering Department designed the robot for their senior capstone project to help Mason’s Facilities Management employees inspect the university’s storm drain system. It’s often difficult to pinpoint precisely where drains are clogged, which can lead to costly excavations and disrupt campus activity, Lewis says.

Thunder Rat gives “us a set of eyes that can go underground for an inside view of the quality and condition of the pipes,” says Samira Lloyd, sustainability program manager in the Office of Sustainability, which funded the project through the Patriot Green Fund.  “It can save us time and trouble, and help our system run better.”

The team, which also calls itself Thunder Rat, faced several challenges in their efforts to design a nondestructive storm drainage inspection system. The robot had to be water resistant, so they filled in lots of cracks and gaps in the chassis. The students also had to find a way to operate the bot because they couldn’t use Wi-Fi underground. They tethered it to a laptop with a sturdy Ethernet cable, which they also used to pull it out of drains.

The driver, using a laptop with a game controller, operates the Thunder Rat’s onboard computer to manipulate the robot’s lights, wheels, and video camera, says mechanical engineering major Alex Walters, BS ’18. As Thunder Rat travels through the drain, the robot displays an inspection report. If an issue is detected, the user has the robot take photos. A mechanical wire counter tracks how far the bot travels inside the pipe.

Facilities Management's land development group has used Thunder Rat to inspect a few pipes on campus, and the videos and photos played an important role in the decision-making process, says the group's manager, Zhongyan Xu. “The students were energetic, ambitious, and self-driven. We were impressed not only by their technical skills but also their project-management skills.”

There are products like Thunder Rat on the market, but they’re bigger, more expensive, and can require a team of people to run them, Lewis says. “It was great to apply some of the academic concepts that I learned over my four years at Mason and leave some small legacy behind.”

Team members also include Antonio Evans, BS Mechanical Engineering ’18, and Matthew San Nicolas, BS Mechanical Engineering ’18.

This story was written by Volgenau Engineering Communications Specialist Nanci Hellmich. Read more Mason Engineering news.