Pentagon relies on robotic pipe cleaner
July 30, 1999
(CNN) -- Nearly a million square feet of the Pentagon has been stripped to its bare bones as part of an ongoing program to bring the Defense Department megalith up to code by 2010.
Now, a robotic pipe cleaner could rescue Pentagon renovators from the hazards of asbestos removal.
"You name a code, and we were not compliant," said Lee Evey, program manager for the Pentagon renovation effort. "The last time we were compliant with the National Electric Code was 1953. We are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Architecture and aesthetics were not high on the list of priorities during wartime 58 years ago when the Pentagon's foundation was laid.
"It was built in 16 months," Evey says. "They employed 15,000 workers who worked 24 hours a day to build this building. It started in '41 and was completed in January of '43. The U.S. at the time was looking at the possible entry into World War II, and the various military departments were scattered around town in 17 different buildings."
While the building helped unify the U.S. war effort, environmentally it's a mess, contaminated with diesel fuel, mercury, PCBs and tons and tons of asbestos.
"We have literally thousands of linear feet of pipe in the Pentagon, all of which must be remediated," Evey says. "That is a tremendous job for us."
The ancient Greeks knew that asbestos could be used for fireproofing and insulating, but centuries later scientists realized that those fibers could be deadly. The problem is that the manual removal of this material can be dangerous and time consuming.
In hot weather and layers of protective gear, asbestos removal is unpleasant and dangerous work anywhere. Inhaled fibers can cause lung scarring and cancer.
Now, the U.S. Department of Energy has turned to a robotics team to come up with something cheaper and safer -- a technology being tested at the Pentagon.
The solution is BOA, short for Big On Asbestos. This robotic device can surround pipes, dice and suck out the fibers inside while keeping dangerous particles from getting into the air.
From one "wedge," or one fifth of the building, 2,000 tons of asbestos already have been removed.
Pipe-hugging robot safer for workers
Robotic scientist Hagen Schempf of Carnegie Mellon University came up with the concept for this pipe-hugging robot with worker safety as a prime component.
"It must abide by the rules that are in place, because humans in this case are still around," Schempf says. "You must be safe, make sure the environment stays safe and make sure that whoever runs the system can operate it and run it safely."
Deep inside the Pentagon, asbestos removal workers are learning to use this remote-controlled tool through demonstrations on non-toxic insulation.
"The locomotor clamps on the pipe and propels the machine along the pipe in order to remove the insulation," says Carnegie Mellon engineer Ed Mutschler. "Inside the abatement head, there are a series of cutters with water jets that dice the insulation into chunks and that are then drawn down into this vacuum shoot through a vacuum hose, over to the other pieces of equipment."
Those who monitor worker safety say BOA is much safer than hands-on removal. When BOA was tested on "real" Pentagon asbestos, air quality tests showed no problem with harmful fibers escaping.
"The operator is sitting or standing remotely and not actually involved with the asbestos, so doesn't get the exposure and also is not in some awkward position on a ladder or scaffold so it's much safer technology," says industrial hygienist Bruce Lippy.
BOA can work up to 10 time as fast as a human and the cost of removal is reduced because there is no need to build enclosures and ventilation systems for each section being cleaned.
And that has great potential for a job as monstrous as renovating the Pentagon.
Robotics designers at Carnegie Mellon say BOA should be commercially available in about a year with a cost around $200,000.
Correspondent Marsha Walton contributed to this story.
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