Neither the dirt, small rocks, nor obstacles could stop GE’s giant earthworm robot from tunneling an underground path to its ultimate destination. GE Research’s Robotics team successfully demonstrated the feasibility of its bio-inspired soft robot design for rapid and efficient tunnel digging through a year and a half, $2.5 million project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Underminer program.
GE researchers, led by Deepak Trivedi, built and demonstrated a prototype that autonomously and continuously tunneled underground at GE’s Research campus in Niskayuna NY at a comparable distance to existing, commercially available trenchless technologies. During its journey, GE’s extremely dexterous soft robot design powered by fluidic artificial muscles was able to slide past small rocks and obstacles as it carved a 10 cm diameter tunnel.
“Through this project, we have truly broken new ground in advancing autonomous and soft robotic designs,” Trivedi 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.”
Trivedi added, “The ability of GE’s robot to operate reliably in rugged, extreme environments is, to our knowledge, a first in soft robotic design.”
The general idea of soft robotics is to create robots that have many more degrees of freedom in movement than conventional robots with joints. With no joints or bones, soft robots have the dexterity and flexibility to make sharp turns, squeeze through small, confined spaces and even have the ability to pick up and move objects of vastly different shapes or sizes. These designs are often bio-inspired, seeking to mimic the movements of soft structures like octopus arms and elephant trunks. For this project, GE scientists drew their inspiration from one of the most proficient tunnel diggers, the earthworm.
GE Research worked together with its partner, InnoVital Systems, an advanced technology company serving the defense and health industries, to design its giant earthworm. InnoVital Systems designed and supplied the pneumatic artificial muscles that were integrated into the earthworm soft robot design. These muscles mimicked the muscular structure and function of the earthworms. During testing, they 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.
Trivedi says the technologies being developed on this project will not only help advance tunneling technologies, but also advanced inspection and repair capabilities using robots. GE already has developed and field-tested snake-like robots for jet engine inspection and repair.
“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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