Intelligent underground robots for urban environments

This is an Intelligent underground robots for urban environments.Researchers from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) are leading the implementation of a new kind of autonomous underground robot with intelligent navigation for urban environments. The system, developed within the framework of the European research project BADGER, aims to become a model for excavation technologies because of its high economic and social impact.

Participating in the project, which is coordinated by the UC3M Robotics Lab, are researchers from Germany, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom. Its goal is to develop an intelligent system for the autonomous excavation of small diameter, high gradient tunnels in urban environments.

“The use of innovative localization, mapping and navigation techniques, along with sensors and georadars, will allow them to be adapted to different land surfaces and aid in the analysis of the work environment and decision making in attaining the goals,” stated project coordinator, Carlos Balaguer, full professor in the UC3M Department of Systems Engineering and Automation.

BADGER (roBot for Autonomous unDerGround trenchless opERations, mapping and navigation) is a project that incorporates several innovations. The main one is this new application of robotics to an underground environment. Until now, robotics was a field focused especially on walking or rolling surface robots and flying or underwater robots.

Autonomous navigation, meanwhile, is another of the project’s strong points, as all the sensors, georadars and computers will be integrated in the machine, which enables them to make a much more precise and controlled exploration of the land. Lastly, the use of ultrasound techniques to perforate the ground, accompanied by a 3-D printer on the robot itself to reinforce the tunnel where the cables and tubes lie, also plays an essential role.

The European Union is sponsoring the project to make underground robotics happen through the development of a robotic system that will be able to drill, maneuver, localize, map and navigate in the underground space, and which will be equipped with tools for constructing horizontal and vertical networks of stable bores and pipelines.

Construction companies already employ a wide variety of digging machinery to help excavate underground and install pipes and cables. But this equipment has limitations: Typically, it is unable to detect and navigate around rocks, pipes, roots, and other obstacles on its own, so it relies on humans to determine exactly where to dig.

Furthermore, these machines are designed to travel in mostly straight lines and can’t build a winding, intricate network of tunnels. They’re also expensive to operate. As a result, construction companies often end up opening trenches, installing the pipes into the hole, and then covering it all up again.

BADGER, in contrast, will be able to autonomously burrow under the ground to create channels for the pipes, navigating around existing infrastructure while it does so. It’s even able to sort of 3D print walls for the conduit it creates as it goes.

The drilling mechanism will be a combination of rotary and impact drilling tech, along with “a novel . . . ultrasonic drill-tool” designed to “foster pulverization of the rock.” All that pulverized rock will be sucked up and flushed out the back of the robot to keep the tunnel clear.

The robot will propel itself through bio-inspired peristaltic motion, kind of like a worm. Or your intestines. The entire thing is modular, and the drive modules, joint modules, and tool modules can all be swapped out depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. Ground penetrating radar antenna arrays, electronic navigation sensors, and lasers help keep the robot on course via underground SLAM while avoiding underground obstacles like rocks, other pipes, and mole people.

The BADGER project currently involves seven institutions from five European countries. It is coordinated by Professor Carlos Balaguer, Santiago Martínez de la Casa, and Carme de Andrés Sanchis from the RoboticsLab at the University Carlos III of Madrid.

The project only started this January (and it’s been funded for €3.7 million over the next three years), so it’s understandable that they don’t yet have any prototype hardware that we’re able to show you.

Eventually the idea is to end up with a “robotic system, following a highly modular approach and architecture, while at the same time ensuring reliable and dependable operation in real-life underground environments in synergy with existing robust market technologies for trenchless applications.”

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