Underwater structural damage inspection has mainly relied on diver-based visual inspection, and emerging technologies include the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for improved efficiency. With the goal of performing an autonomous and robotic underwater inspection, a novel Tactile Imaging System for Underwater Inspection (TISUE) is designed, prototyped, and tested in this paper. The system has two major components, including the imaging subsystem and the manipulation subsystem. The novelty lies in the imaging subsystem, which consists of an elastomer-enabled contact-based optical sensor with specifically designed artificial lighting. The completed TISUE system, including optical imaging, data storage, display analytics, and a mechanical support subsystem, is further tested in a laboratory experiment. The experiment demonstrates that high-resolution and high-quality images of structural surface damage can be obtained using tactile ‘touch-and-sense’ imaging, even in a turbid water environment. A deep learning-based damage detection framework is developed and trained. The detection results demonstrate the similar detectability of five damage types in the obtained tactile images to images obtained from regular (land-based) structural inspection.
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