Military Robots Dig into New Underground Environments

Juan Jose Napuri/iStock.com

Only a few organic creatures specifically designed for that environment are able to do it well.

When you think of military robots or drones, images of unmanned aircraft that have been patrolling the skies in combat zones for many years like the durable Predators or Reapers probably come to mind. Or you might think about even more advanced flying machines like the autonomous Skyborg being designed for the Air Force to act as a wingman to human pilots in combat situations. Flying drones are so popular and well established these days that there are even hundreds of models available for civilian use.

Designing drones that can fly makes a lot of sense, because other than during takeoffs and landings, it’s easy to keep them from coming into contact with the ground or any of the many hazards that can impact travel on land. Once you get a flying drone above the treetops, there is not too much to worry about in terms of things that the aircraft can crash into.

Then about five years ago, we started to see drones and robots evolving into new environments, specifically with many being engineered to conquer the underwater world. Right now, most underwater robots are designed for maintenance, various surveillance or scientific tasks, or simply for exploration. But if you think about it, drones swimming in the ocean makes a lot of sense too, because like the drones that can fly, there is not too much for them to run into once launched.

Recently, the U.K. military held large exercises where swarms of drones and other autonomous vehicles were tested in various combat roles. Some even bridged the gap between sea and sky, diving down into the water and swimming for a while before zooming back up into the sky to complete their missions.

But if there is one place that gives drones trouble, it’s the ground, or more specifically, the underground. Moving and operating underground isn’t an easy task. Only a few organic creatures specifically designed for that environment like earthworms, ants and moles are able to do it well. Creating a functional robot that can dig its own path seems almost impossible. And yet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency came up with quite a few potential uses for a robot that could navigate underground.

It announced the Underminer program last year, tasking three organizations with trying to develop a tunneling robot that could navigate the underground world without human intervention. According to DARPA, the goal of the program was to “develop and demonstrate tactical uses for rapidly created underground infrastructure in contested environments.” Dr. Andrew Nuss, the Underminer program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office said: “The ability to quickly bore tactical tunnels could benefit contingency operations such as rapid ammunition resupply, rescue missions or other immediate needs.”

This week, scientists working at the GE Research testing site in Niskayuna, New York successfully deployed one of the first and most impressive digging robots in the world. Funded with $2.5 million from the DARPA Underminer program, the scientists at GE were able to task their robot with quickly digging a small tunnel under their research facility’s grounds. The robot operated independently without human intervention during the test.

Unlike most robots with rigid bodies designed to protect their vulnerable electronics housed inside, the GE robot has a soft body that resembles an earthworm with lots of articulated joints. This gives the robot the strength to push through soft ground, but also to make very tight turns in a way that is impossible for solid drill bits and most other modern digging technology. When you look at the robot navigating through a clear tube set up by the researchers to study its locomotion, it really does look like a giant earthworm.  

According to GE, the worm robot is capped with a piloting tool on its nose designed to stir and soften the ground as it moves forward. As the dirt loosens, the inside of the worm begins to churn in a way that mirrors how earthworms navigate their underground environment. Fluid flows through seven internal chambers that act as muscles, flexing as water is pumped in and out of them. To move forward, a swelling hydraulic muscle inflates, anchoring the tail of the robot while the auger churns at the head. The worm then elongates to push itself forward.

The worm is equipped with ultrasound technology which allows it to track its movements as well as the angle and position of the entire robot. GE has gone through several prototypes prior to this model. Future worms might be even smarter, able to quickly navigate to wherever they are needed to carry out missions.

The new DARPA-funded worm robot proves that autonomous, robotic vehicles have a bright future in both the military and civilian organizations. Having conquered the sky, the seas and now the underground, there is almost nothing that can stop them from continuing to advance and complete increasingly complex missions in almost any environment.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.