Robotics

Autonomous tunnelling robot takes on the trenches

The BADGER robot could make scenes like this unnecessary – within cities, at least 
The BADGER robot could make scenes like this unnecessary – within cities, at least 
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The BADGER robot could make scenes like this unnecessary – within cities, at least 
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The BADGER robot could make scenes like this unnecessary – within cities, at least 
A diagram of the BADGER system
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A diagram of the BADGER system

Installing things like underground water/gas pipes or telecommunications cable conduits can be a very disruptive process. Typically a trench has to be dug first, which is subsequently filled back in once the piping has been laid along the bottom. Might it not be easier if small-diameter tunnels could simply be bored directly into the soil – particularly in urban environments? That's what the autonomous BADGER robot is being designed to do.

Plans call for BADGER (roBot for Autonomous unDerGround trenchless opERations, mapping and navigation) to have a worm-inspired segmented body, with the segments joined together by universal joints.

A diagram of the BADGER system
A diagram of the BADGER system

At the front will be a drilling head, which will also use ultrasound to help break apart the material that it's auguring into. Each of the segments will be outfitted with mechanisms that clamp against the inside walls of the tunnel. The rest of each segment will then slide forward relative to those mechanisms, allowing the robot to move in much the same manner as a worm uses peristaltic waves to inch its way along.

At the back (or perhaps on another robot following behind) will be a 3D printer. It will deposit a layer of resin on the walls of the tunnel, reinforcing them and essentially turning the tunnel into a pipe.

Power and data cables will run from the back of the robot to a control unit on the surface, where crew members can monitor its progress and even take over and manually control it if necessary. Additionally, a tubular appendage in the rear of the robot will pump dislodged soil up to the surface.

BADGER will also be equipped with an inertial measurement unit – a combination of an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – that it will use to gauge its relative location within the ground. In this way, it should be able to stay on course. It will be aided by ground-penetrating radar, which it will use to detect and avoid obstacles such as large rocks in its path. That said, its path should be relatively clear, as a surface-located ground-penetrating radar unit will have already been used to initially plot the course of the tunnel.

The three-year project is being led by Spain's Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, and involves researchers from Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK.

Sources: UC3M, BADGER Project

5 comments
Roger Garrett
All very interesting. Except that it does NOT use a 3D printer. It notes that the so-called 3D printer will "deposit a layer of resin". That's not 3D printing, that's just squirting out some resin. Plus, this is all just conceptual.Why bother writing about this when all they've got are some conceptual drawing? Where are the actual details, the engineering drawings, the PROTOTYPES?
VincentWolf
Or just hire some of those Were-Worms on the movie "The Battle of the Five Armies". They dig fast and through anything!
LaurensWildeboer
I watched a machine digging a hole to lay pipes under ground into which cables would be run some 25 years ago. It was remote controlled by someone sitting at one end of the intended cable connection where it bored down some 1 metre and travelled along approximately 150 metres where it again came out of the ground. The person guiding the machine was watching it on a screen... It was done by Telstra or a subcontractor responsible for laying a telephone cable between houses...
Bruce H. Anderson
There are already machines that do the same sort of thing, except they pull lengths of tubing through rather than "3-D printing" them in place. The major disadvantage to this is that the pipes have been made in a dedicated production facility, with QC and process controls all that. The on-site welding is in a controlled environment too. Such a hassle! Especially since tunnels are super clean with no chance of dirt getting in the resin. And structural soundness of the pipe? Pish posh.
Rustin Lee Haase
I know I sound as crazy as Mr. Musk but tunnel building could be the future of not only pipe deployment, but also transportation in general. It takes huge amounts of resources to build and maintain roads and rails on the earth's surface. It also messes up the aesthetics the landscape and then there are the undesirable nature/highway interactions. If these tunnelers figure out how to dig cheaply enough and fast enough, tunnels could replace highways as the preferred way to move things and people around, especially as transportation migrates towards electric transport. Imagine a world where you never have to worry about road conditions and roadkill/vehicle-totalling is a nonevent. Imagine not having to give up your home because they are putting in a bypass through your property. Highway planning is 2D. Tunneling is 3D. I'm sure some locations will be more compatible with the idea at first but I think well engineered tunnels are the way to go over highways that are always in need of repair from use and the elements. Freeze/Thaw cycles are killers to asphalt highways and often to the drivers too.