In March 2011, the Tohoku earth­quake in Japan ini­ti­ated a tsunami that wreaked havoc across the coast of the island nation. The most infa­mous damage occurred when the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant suf­fered serious equip­ment fail­ures, which led to the second largest nuclear dis­aster in history.

In the after­math, inspec­tion and repair crews faced severe health threats as they nav­i­gated the radiation-​​ridden facility. But what if humans didn’t have to clean up the wreckage, asked Jerry Hajjar, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering at North­eastern. “What if you could imagine an autonomous flying vehicle or a swarm of vehi­cles that would be able to go in instead.”

Hajjar knows that any major oper­a­tion that’s dif­fi­cult to access because it’s too remote, too dan­gerous, or too large could ben­efit from a robotic “inspec­tion assis­tant.” And now he’s teaming up with researchers at Carnegie Mellon Uni­ver­sity to create one.

Backed by a $2.3 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foundation’s National Robotics Ini­tia­tive, the research team includes robotics and image-​​processing experts who will develop an autonomous low-​​flying vehicle equipped with laser and video cap­ture tech­nolo­gies capable of pro­viding nearly con­tin­uous data about a given structure.

Hajjar, for his part, will develop algo­rithms that auto­mat­i­cally inter­pret the col­lected data. “Given what we’re seeing, I’ll try to deter­mine and val­i­date whether or not the struc­ture we’re looking at is dam­aged, how it’s dam­aged, and pos­sibly how it got dam­aged,” he explained.

He will be linking existing struc­tural analysis models with image data. “This is the first time we really have a ubiq­ui­tous set of data on the struc­ture,” he said. In the past, models have relied on sen­sors that scan for quan­ti­ties such as strain or stress at a single point. Here, through the image pro­cessing exper­tise of his col­leagues, Hajjar will be working with infor­ma­tion about the defor­ma­tions exerted across the entire struc­ture, be it a failed power plant, an aging sus­pen­sion bridge, or a col­lapsed building.