GE Research’s Robotics team has successfully demonstrated the feasibility of its bio-inspired soft robot design for rapid and efficient tunnel digging. Neither the dirt, small rocks, nor obstacles could stop GE’s giant earthworm robot from tunneling an underground path to its ultimate destination.
A $2.5 million project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Underminer program, allowed the American firm to develop a soft, fluid, and dexterous autonomous prototype able to maneuver around obstacles underground.
GE’s giant earthworm robot is made up of large segmented pieces, which act like the fluid-filled “hydrostatic skeleton” found in invertebrates. The robot’s pneumatic artificial muscles move like a real earthworm’s in order to propel it forward. Besides, the segmented design also gives it impressive freedom of movement and the ability to make sharp turns, maneuver into difficult-to-reach places and pick up and move objects of many shapes and designs.
During testing, the prototype autonomously and continuously tunneled underground at GE’s Research campus in Niskayuna, NY, at a comparable distance to existing, commercially available trenchless technologies. It exceeded the state-of-the-art in scale and pressure capability, which were key factors in achieving higher degrees of ruggedness and performance in extreme environments.
During its journey, GE’s giant earthworm robot was able to slide past small rocks and obstacles as it carved a 10 cm diameter tunnel.
“The ability of GE’s robot to operate reliably in rugged, extreme environments is, to our knowledge, a first in soft robotic design,” said lead researcher Deepak Trivedi.
The stated goal of the Underminer project is the development of technologies that will allow the deployment of tactical networks of underground tunnels for the needs of the military. In the civilian sector, such systems will be engaged in cable laying down power lines and optical fiber cables for high-speed internet or for industrial inspection and repair tasks. It does not have a rigid frame, so it can reach the most inaccessible places when checking or repairing underground pipes.
“In the future, we want to enable deeper, in-situ inspection and repair capabilities that would enable more on-wing inspection and repairs or enable major power generation equipment like gas and steam turbines to be inspected and repaired without removing them from service for lengthy periods of time,” said Trivedi. “The advancements we have made on this project support key developments needed to make that possible.“