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Autonomous Robots Designed for Flood Projects

Romu robotic device

Romu robotic device (Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

8 Apr. 2019. As towns and cities face more threats of floods from climate change, a new type of autonomous robot offers a technology to help prevent or contain the damage. A team from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University plans to describe these autonomous robots next month at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal.

The device the researchers call Romu, is an offshoot of the larger Termes project designing autonomous robots for construction. Termes robots build structures performing complex tasks with interlocking Lego-style bricks, and with little, if any, supervision. Science & Enterprise reported on Termes devices at their unveiling in February 2014.

But the team developing Termes, from the Harvard engineering labs of Radhika Nagpal and Justin Werfel, recognized an unmet need for robotic builders to help create barriers that prevent floods and soil erosion, a growing need in times of climate change. The same devices could also build retaining walls on slopes and support permanent building foundations.

Like Termes, the Romu system uses a standard set of interlocking construction materials. But unlike the original bricks, Romu uses interlocking sheets of steel driven into the ground. These steel piles are then configured into walls to stabilize soil for dams, foundations, and flood barriers. Romu is built on a 4-wheeled platform that raises and lowers, with each wheel connected to an individual actuator motor. Each of these separate wheels and motors makes it possible for Romu to travel over uneven terrain, and provides the stability needed to drive steel piles into the ground.

Romu works by raising upward, taking one its onboard steel sheets, and with an onboard vibratory hammer, forcing the steel sheet into the soil, as the platform lowers. The system maintains the steel sheets at a vertical angle as they’re hammered into the ground. When the top of a driven pile reaches a specified height from the ground, Romu takes another steel sheet from the platform connects it to the previous sheet, raises up the platform, and repeats the process as before. When Romu uses up its onboard stock of steel sheets, it returns to a supply base for more.

The Romu project team designed the individual devices to work in swarms, like the Termes robots. “The swarm approach,” says Werfel in a Wyss Institute statement, “gives advantages like speedup through parallelism, robustness to the loss of individual robots, and scalability for large teams. By responding in real-time to the conditions they actually encounter as they work, the robots can adapt to unexpected or changing situations, without needing to rely on a lot of supporting infrastructure for abilities like site surveying, communication, or localization.”

“In addition to tests in the lab,” adds project leader Nathan Melenbrink, a computer science fellow at the Wyss Institute, “we demonstrated Romu operating on a nearby beach. This kind of demonstration can be an icebreaker for a broader conversation around opportunities for automation in construction and land management. We’re interested in engaging with experts in related fields who might see potential benefit for the kind of automated interventions we’re developing.” The researchers believe the technology can be adapted to mining and agriculture as well as construction.

The following video shows a Romu device in action.

Romu: A Robot for Environmental Protection from Wyss Institute on Vimeo.

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