Ground breaking

Researchers in the UK are developing a biomimetic robot that locates earthquake survivors by burrowing through rubble.


A Robot that will dig like a mole to locate survivors under rubble in urban disaster zones, such as in the aftermath of an earthquake or terrorist attack, is being developed.



Much of the digging technique will be based on that of a mole and the robot will be able to move obstacles out if its path as it burrows through the debris.



The two-year project at ManchesterUniversity’s School of Computer Science, aims to create an experimental robotic prototype with the most energy-efficient digging technique possible.



Prof Robin Scott, the project’s lead researcher, said that the team’s decision to base the design on a mole was in part inspired by seeing how efficient past biomimetic designs have been.



‘It seems to be the case that nature often finds the most efficient way of tackling a problem, something that other researchers have already discovered,’ said Scott. ‘This robot needs to be particularly efficient as it will have to work on its own, untethered, for some time underground.’



The team is using Labview software to analyse the system and develop controlling technologies for the device. The robot needs to be small to find its way through small holes in the debris.



One of the areas the team is researching is the analysis of what is known as a ‘debris field’ — the distribution of gaps in rubble following a disaster. According to Scott this is an area into which there has been very little scientific research in the past.



His vision for the exploratory robot is that it will use tracks to move through the rubble, and the team’s main area of research so far has been in developing ways to make the robot interact with the obstacles it comes across. It will be equipped with a camera that will allow a surface-based rescue team to monitor its progress and control its movement.



If it finds someone trapped beneath the surface it will alert rescuers via an electronic flag detailing the victim’s exact locations, but Scott is adamant that his design will be used to locate victims rather than attempt to dig them out.



Much of the team’s work stems from what Scott sees as a deficiency in other urban search-andrescue robots.



‘Other researchers have tried to avoid obstacles as much as possible,’ he said. ‘But looking at past robotic testing we do not think this is really feasible. You need to be able to go through and under the rubble. The main gap we can see in current research is that we need robots that can burrow through holes and find gaps in the rubble.’



The robot’s manipulation system will have to be able to move obstacles made from heavy materials such as concrete and steel in the most energy-efficient manner. It will also need be extremely robust, and the team is investigating materials for the final machine.



Scott expects that a working prototype of the robot’s manipulation system could be ready as early as March. This will then be tested before the EPSRC-funded project goes further, and a full motion system for the robot is developed.