Topic of the month July 2009

Figure 1: Model of the sensing submarine robot. Source: DFKI Bremen

In the oil industry, oil country tubular goods, drills and pipelines but also enclosures, ropes and wires are components of key importance in view of the achievable production quantities, ecologically responsible procedures as well as loss-free transport and safe storage.

The frequently harsh environmental conditions, the lack of infrastructure, the abrasive nature of the geological conditions and the desire to achieve maximum process efficiency make it therefore necessary to detect any mechanisms that are interfering and destructive for materials and components at an early stage, to observe them as necessary and eventually eliminate them. This is why the industry is continuously looking for innovative technological developments that can help it secure the availability of the basic resources oil and natural gas in a responsible manner.

Making sense: Robots that feel their way around

Maintaining the support structure of oil platforms, checking undersea cables for damage or detecting leaks in pipelines – intelligent underwater robots can be used for a wide variety of deep-sea applications. Now, engineers have plans to equip such robots also with a sense of touch, which will enable these mechanical assistants to orient themselves and move around in the dark depths. Project manager Marcus Maiwald at Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research (IFAM) in Bremen and his colleagues at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DKFI) developed an innovative sensor technology that is based on the use of novel strain gages. Contrary to conventional strain gages – which are usually glued on –, the developers use a special print technology that allows the precise positioning of the sensor even on curved parts of the robot’s surface. A single printed track is only several tenths of a micrometer wide, which makes it possible to attach a large number of strain gages close to each other, ensuring high sensitivity and positional resolution, respectively. This enables the sensing robot to determine exactly e.g. where it touches an obstacle or where it is impossible to pursue its path. The sensor is also protected from the corrosive salt water by a sealed enclosure. Further research focuses on the learning ability of the system – aiming at the sensor’s capability to distinguish between a water current and an obstacle.

Transfer potential: RFIDs make radio contact through metal

Metals are good screens against radiation – this is a well-known fact. However, the latest research has shown that this must not always be the case. A clever trick can be used to extract information from RFID devices even when they are encased in metal. But where can this be useful?

In manufacturing for example – where highest precision counts and several hundredths of a millimeter can make the difference whether a product is acceptable or scrap. Worn tools are not compatible with the required high precision. For this reason, the operators must regularly check drills, mills and other cutting tools and measure their dimensions. This process used to be tedious and time-consuming manual work. It involves inserting the tools into a holder, the spindle, using a matching adapter. Both the tool and the adapter carry a serial number – this and more data such as the dimensions are typed in by hand, which is prone to transmission errors.

There is a chance that the entire process can be handled more easily, faster and more safely in the future. Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute of Microelectronic Circuits and Systems (IMS) in Duisburg, in cooperation with Kelch & Links GmbH in Schorndorf, found the first solution for integrating RFID chips in metallic tools and use them for data communications. These small data memories are capable of sending the required information to a reader outside the metallic spindle.

According to Dr. Gerd vom Bögel, team leader at the IMS, this technological development is based on a segmentation of the transmission path. In a first step, the RFID chip, which is located in the adapter, transmits the data via cable to the adapter/spindle interface. From there, the data are forwarded by wireless transmission via antenna coils. The developers see numerous areas of application for this technology since the transmission principle can be used wherever information needs to be communicated by wireless transmission via multiple and different paths.

News: Making forces visible

Figure 2: Indication of stress conditions on plastic samples by means of mechanophor molecules. Source: Photo Beckman Institute ITG, Darren Stevenson and Alex Jerez.

Material researchers from the team of Professor Nancy Sottos of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed an innovative method for the direct visualization of critical forces or overloads in plastic components by means of color effects. To achieve this, the scientists make use of so-called mechanophor molecules that can be incorporated in various plastic materials and induce specific color transitions in case that specific forces are applied. Based on this development, paints, semi-finished goods and components can be provided with a reliable indicator to protect them against mechanical damage in the future.

Dr.-Ing. Christoph Konetschny
Materials & Nano Expert

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