WATCH: GE’s earthworm tunnelling robot

General Electric (GE) has been awarded a contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a more efficient way to bore tunnels.

GE’s 15 month, $2.5 million agreement was one of three contracts awarded through DARPA’s Underminer program to demonstrate the feasibility of a robot that can rapidly and efficiently bore tactical tunnels in support of military operations.

GE and the Colorado School of Mines will develop an integrated solution for operational needs, while Sandia National Laboratories will address current process and system limitations.

The Underminer program is attempting to merge horizontal drilling, trenchless boring and robotic technologies to enable the rapid construction of underground tunnels for various battlefield situations.

GE has been exploring an earthworm-like robotic design to create a machine with great ability to dig and move quickly underground, which Project Leader Deepak Trivedi said will help also advance inspection and repair capabilities.

“It turns out earthworms are probably the most prolific tunnel makers on the planet,” he said.

“We have designed a prototype that is several feet long, with hydraulic artificial muscles that mimics the agility of earthworms moving through soil and with the force of tree roots penetrating through soft rock.”

The goal of the project is to demonstrate a robot that can move at a speed of 10 cm per second and dig a tunnel 500 m in length and at least 10 cm in diameter.

“The soft robot design we’re creating will have many more degrees of freedom in movement than conventional robots with joints,” said Mr Trivedi.

“One of the reasons, octopuses, for example, can squeeze through such small spaces is that they have no bones. The same thing applies for soft robots, which can be very advantageous when you want to reach small places like the inside of a jet engine or power turbine to inspect and make intricate repairs.”

For more information visit the GE website.

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