The Robotic Underground

Winter 2019

Illustration of tunneling robot

A robot travels through a tunnel buried deep underground. Using its camera, it searches every nook and cranny in the dark passageway for potential hazards, mapping its path as it goes. It relays this information to its operators in real time, giving them vital information to protect people who will eventually make the same journey.

Although this sounds like a common scenario for the military or border patrol, nothing that performs this specialized task exists currently, explains William Bagley, associate research engineer at the Whiting School’s Energetics Research Group.

That’s why Bagley participated recently in a robotics workshop and challenge at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The event, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, brought together individuals from different backgrounds, including computer programmers, college students, engineers, and explosive ordnance disposal technicians like Bagley.

The workshop kicked off with an overview of what these participants would be facing for the challenge: They’d work together in teams to design robots capable of passing through a service tunnel on the Johnson Space Center property. To achieve this feat, they’d be given access to various commercial robot kits and accessories, NASA’s large vehicle construction building, a machine shop, and workspace with all the manufacturing equipment they’d need.

The tunnel itself presented myriad challenges, Bagley explains. Topping the list was communications: Numerous wires and plumbing lined the twisty tunnel, which lay more than 20 feet underground, making radio frequency communication an unlikely possibility. The tunnel also had physical obstacles, including a set of steep, irregular stairs.

After a brief safety discussion, the participants split into five teams to start building, an iterative process that proceeded over the next four days. On Friday, the teams each lowered their robots into the tunnel to see which ones could successfully navigate through while identifying a set of pre-placed hazards. Bagley’s team’s design—a heavily modified tracted robot—was the only one to meet all the objectives.

“Nothing like this really exists in current fielded systems for military, law enforcement, or the harsh environments of space,” Bagley says. “By bringing different minds together, we each played a small role in accomplishing something big.”