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Climbing robots take on dangers of high-elevation work

Matt Richmond
International Climbing Machines president Sam Maggio demonstrates his company's climber.

International Climbing Machines (ICM) has its headquarters in a shabby warehouse on the outskirts of Ithaca.

The workshop is hardly bigger than a three-car garage. Metal shelves filled with spare parts line the walls, and in one corner there’s enough space for company president Sam Maggio to show off his device.

It’s called a climber.

“We simply put a vacuum motor, a standard industrial vacuum motor, on the body of the climber and that establishes a vacuum in the chamber that’s in the center of the climber,” says Maggio.

That vacuum keeps the 25-pound robot stuck to the wall while it climbs, just like Spiderman. But the robot doesn’t look like Spiderman. It looks like a sump pump with a two-foot long metal body and rubber tracks on either side.

Workers operate it with a Playstation controller.

"There just needed to be a better way"

The climber has two classic characteristics of a successful invention: It’s so simple that it makes you wonder why no one else had thought of it. And it solves a common problem, especially for people who have to work hundreds of feet off the ground.

“The way they would do it now is with people repelling, they're dangling from ropes,” says Maggio.

But that'll change with Maggio's robots.

“So we'll be climbing on hydroelectric dams, cooling towers, large concrete surfaces to be able to detect cracks that are inside, to find those flaws,” he says.

Before moving to Ithaca, Maggio was running a Boston company that removed and applied coatings on power plants and other large structures.

“My first taste of that type work was needing to set up scaffolding, building tents, having large dust collection systems and then putting human beings into that environment and after several years of that I saw it was extremely archaic and that there just needed to be a better way,” says Maggio.

With a grant from the state's economic development agency, Maggio started International Climbing Machines in Utica in 2001. He kept tinkering until he got it right.

A shift in thinking

Now, the climber can reach 500 feet and go around curved surfaces or over rough ones. That helped ICM cement a deal with GE Global Research to develop a robot with a camera that can check blades on wind turbines.

“You drive by a wind farm and there might be 25 wind turbines and 7 or 8 of them are shutdown and you wonder, why aren’t they running?” 

Maggio says it’s because people can’t go up and check the blades when there’s a lot of wind. So the turbines are shut down until someone can get up there safely. But there are no safety restrictions for Maggio’s machine.

And that’s why the U.S. government is offering the device to Japan to help clean up the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. The robot could be used to apply a liquid rubber that would seal radiation inside the plants.

“Let the climber do the actual work, let the climber get near the toxic materials, let the climber be faced with the dangers of the elevated heights and have the human being stand on the ground with the Playstation, you know and operate it,” says Maggio.

The company's robot is still in the testing and marketing phase. But Maggio is hoping that’ll change once companies see everything his machine can do.

“People get set in their ways doing a conventional approach, it might be with scaffolding or ladders or cherry-pickers or whatever these methods that have been done for if not decades even hundreds of years and we represent a shift in that thinking.”

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