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GE made an earthworm robot

The next frontier for robots is underground and the military is spending big bucks on autonomous diggers.
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Written by Greg Nichols, Contributor on
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Robots that dig underground are getting lots of development attention thanks to DARPA, the Pentagon's research funding arm. The latest example? An earthworm from GE.

The GE robot is part of DARPA's Underminer program. According to the agency:

DARPA has selected three performers to develop technologies and solutions for the Underminer program that would surpass current commercial drilling capabilities. Underminer aims to demonstrate the feasibility of rapidly constructing tactical tunnel networks to provide secure logistics infrastructure to pre-position supplies or resupply troops as they move through an area.

DARPA is also rounding third base on its SubT (Subterranean) Challenge, which "seeks novel approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios." The final events for the virtual and systems challenges will take place in late September of this year.

GE's earthworm robot is bio-inspired, drawing inspiration from the wriggly worm, and like its prototype its soft, putting it in a class of robots that don't have hard exterior bodies. The earthworm robot is powered by fluidic muscles and has undergone successful trials through a year-and-a-half long demonstration period.

"Through this project, we have truly broken new ground in advancing autonomous and soft robotic designs," Deepak Trivedi, a GE researcher leading the project, said. "By creating a smaller footprint that can navigate extreme turning radiuses, function autonomously, and reliably operate through rugged, extreme environments, we're opening up a whole new world of potential applications that go well beyond commercially available technologies." 

The prototype earthworm, which made a 10 cm diameter tunnel, autonomously dug underground at GE's Niskayuna, NY, research campus, achieving a distance comparable to available trenchless digging machines.

"The ability of GE's robot to operate reliably in rugged, extreme environments is, to our knowledge, a first in soft robotic design," said Trivedi.

If a military-funded earthworm sounds terrifying, DARPA outlined the need for digging technologies in the run up to the SubT.

As underground settings become increasingly relevant to global security and safety, innovative and enhanced technologies have the potential to disruptively and positively impact subterranean military and civilian operations. To explore these possibilities, DARPA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to augment its understanding of state-of-the-art technologies that could enable future systems to rapidly map and navigate unknown complex subterranean environments to locate objects of interest, e.g., trapped survivors, without putting humans in harm's way.

The earthworm, for its part, has potential broad utility, including in inspection and repair tasks.

"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," Trivedi said. "The advancements we have made on this project support key developments needed to make that possible."

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