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These wall-climbing, AI-powered robots are finding the flaws in ‘D’ grade U.S. infrastructure, from commuter bridges to military hardware



The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge earlier this year and an I-95 overpass in Philadelphia last June weren’t triggered by structural flaws — a runaway, powerless ocean ship and tanker fire were the culprits. But the disasters were the latest examples of an issue seen across the U.S.: trillions of dollars worth of critical — and vulnerable — bridges, roads, dams, factories, plants and machinery that are rapidly aging and in need of repair.

Significant sums of money are being spent to fix the issues, some coming from President Biden’s Infrastructure Act and other legislation, but the way infrastructure is maintained has largely not changed, mostly done slowly by humans or after a significant issue arises like a leak or collapse.

Gecko Robotics, which ranked No. 42 on the 2024 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, is taking on the nationwide challenge with AI and robots, specifically, its wall-climbing bots that perform inspections on infrastructure and not only identify existing issues but also to try to predict what can be done to avoid future problems.

“When you think about the built world, a lot of concrete, a lot of metal that is, especially in the U.S., 60 to 70 years old; we as a country have a D rating for infrastructure and getting that up to a B is a $4 trillion to $6 trillion problem,” Gecko Robotics CEO Jake Loosararian told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. “A lot of that is understanding what to fix and then targeting those repairs, and then also ensuring that they don’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

Gecko Robotics’ technology is already being used to monitor “500,000 of the world’s most critical assets,” Loosararian said, which range from oil and gas facilities and pipelines to boilers and tanks at manufacturing facilities.

A focus on military hardware, from subs to aircraft carriers

Gecko robots are increasingly being utilized by the U.S. military. In 2022, the U.S. Air Force awarded Gecko Robotics a contract to help it with the conversion of missile silos. Last year, the U.S. Navy tapped the company to help modernize the manufacturing process of its Columbia-class nuclear submarine program, using Gecko’s robots to conduct inspections of welds.

Gecko Robotics is also working with the Navy to inspect aircraft carriers, which Loosararian demonstrated on CNBC via a demo on the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that now serves as a museum in New York City.

He compared the analysis that Gecko Robotics is doing on infrastructure to a CAT scan of a human body, while also creating a digital twin of the scanned object.

Those inspections historically are done by workers, collecting thousands of readings across an aircraft carrier. Gecko Robotics technology can collect upwards of 20 million data points in a tenth of the time, Loosararian said.

“There’s human error, and if you’re hanging off the side of a ship, it’s pretty dangerous too,” he said.

There are also issues related to the timeliness of military hardware construction and readiness of defense assets in an unpredictable world of global threats. For example, Loosararian said China is building ships 232 times faster than the U.S. is, a function of the sheer amount of shipbuilding capacity that China now has in comparison.

“A third of our naval vessels are in drydock right now, and you want them out of drydock or not even in a maintenance cycle,” Loosararian said. “What we’re doing with Lidar and ultrasonic sensors is a health scan, seeing what the damages are and how to fix them, because what we’re trying to do is get these ships from drydock out to the seas patrolling as fast as possible.”

The digital twins being created by Gecko robots also help with the building of future projects, saving not only time but resources and capital.

“It’s not just about how things work day-to-day but also how do you build smarter things,” Loosararian said. “If we can understand what fails in the real world, then we can figure out how to build smarter things in the future.”

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