Professor Winncy Du’s lab is riddled with robots. One mows lawns without an operator. Others assemble tiny biomedical devices, play catch with you, or help disabled people feed themselves using voice commands. And her pipe-climbing “multi-finger” robot may one day save lives.

Thousands of miles of utility pipes around the country transport water, fuel, waste, and communication and power cables underground. Developing a reliable way to inspect these pipes for damage is critical. Just consider the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that razed 38 homes and killed eight people. And up to 75 percent of earthquake-related property losses are due to buildings’ non-structural elements, including utility pipes.

With funding from a National Science Foundation grant, Du and her student team within the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have already won awards for their robotic system. The “multi-finger” robot can perform utility pipe inspections automatically after earthquakes—and even before disaster strikes.

Read this story and more in the winter 2012 issue of Washington Square Magazine.