Underground, overground: robots exploring extreme environments

Robots are much hardier than humans so they can be very useful for working in hazardous environments.

In our previous blogs we’ve seen that robots are helping people to explore far away places in our solar system, and cope with dangerous conditions on earth, such as handling nuclear waste.

Another extreme environment right here on Earth is the ocean. Although we have already explored a lot, we still know less about the ocean depths than we do about the surface of the Moon!

The depths of the ocean

Robots are helping people explore and map the deepest oceans.

One example is the Seabed 2030 project, which aims to map the entire ocean floor by 2030, and some of this will be done with remotely operated submarine robots.

Robots can cope with the very high-pressure, dark, and cold environment at the bottom of the ocean, and they’re not scared of the strange creatures they might bump into there!

Extreme environments on Earth can also provide a test site for robots that will one day explore other planets. BRUIE is a robot designed by NASA to explore icy lakes – like those found on Jupiter’s moon Europa, or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It’s being tested in Antarctica to make sure it’s ready for an out of this world trip.

BRUIE is an underwater explorer. Public domain photo by NASA.

And another NASA creation — LEMUR the rock-climbing robot — has been scaling rocky cliffs in California in preparation for one day climbing cliffs on Mars in search of signs of life.

But it’s not all exploration and excitement — robots also have really important jobs to play at sea monitoring and maintaining important structures like oil rigs and wind farms. For example, drones can be used to attach special sensors that can beam data back to shore. ORCA Hub has developed a sensor called Limpet that can be attached to offshore and underwater structures by robots.

Robots are also helping explore flooded underground mines in search of precious metals and minerals.

Urban extremes

There are also plenty of extreme environments for robots to explore and patrol, much closer to home.

In fact, there is one right beneath your feet. Hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipes criss-cross the country, bringing us clean drinking water and carrying waste away from our homes to sewage processing plants.

These underground sewer systems are difficult for humans to get to, which is why when one of them springs a leak, we often have to dig up a very big hole in the road to repair it! In fact, in the UK our roads are dug up over 1.5 million times every year.

Robots that can tolerate the dark, wet, and cramped environment inside our water pipes and sewers could perform repairs underground without us ever knowing about it. 

The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by Pipebots, a project that is developing tiny, intelligent robots that can patrol the pipes below our feet looking for damage such as cracks. This means leaks can be detected early and engineers can be sent to exactly the right location to dig.

One day, these robots might even be able to repair the damage they find themselves, so we wouldn’t need to dig up the roads at all!