Robot swarms could protect landscapes from threat of erosion

10 Apr 2019

Photo credit: Romu is designed to drive interlocking sheet piles into granular soils like sand on a beach. Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Contributed by Benjamin Boettner 

Proper soil stabilization is key to sustainable land management in industries such as construction, mining, and agriculture; and land degradation, the loss of ecosystem services from a given terrain, is a driver of climate change and is estimated to cost up to $10 trillion annually.

On developed riverbanks, physical barriers can help contain flooding and combat erosion. In arid regions, check dams can help retain soil after rainfall and restore damaged landscapes. In construction projects, metal plates can provide support for excavations, retaining walls on slopes, or permanent foundations. All of these applications can be addressed with the use of sheet piles, elements folded from flat material and driven vertically into the ground to form walls and stabilize soil.

With this motivation, a team of roboticists at Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has developed a robot that can autonomously drive interlocking steel sheet piles into soil. The structures that it builds could function as retaining walls or check dams for erosion control.

The researchers envision large numbers of Romu robots working together as a collective or swarm. They demonstrated in computer simulations that teams of Romu robots could make use of environmental cues like slope steepness in order to build walls in effective locations, making efficient use of limited resources.

“The swarm approach gives advantages like speedup through parallelism, robustness to the loss of individual robots, and scalability for large teams,” said senior research scientist Justin Werfel. “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 the future, the Terramanus “genus” could be extended by additional robots carrying out different tasks to protect or restore ecosystem services. Based on their findings, the team now is interested in investigating interventions ranging from groundwater retention structures for supporting agriculture in arid regions, to responsive flood barrier construction for hurricane preparedness.

“The name Terramanus ferromurus(Romu) is a nod to the concept of “machine ecology” in which autonomous systems can be introduced into natural environments as new participants, taking specific actions to complement and promote human environmental stewardship,” said researcher Nathan Melenbrink

Future versions of the robot could perform other interventions such as spraying soil-binding agents or installing silt fencing, such that a family of these robots could act to stabilize soil in a wide range of situations.

Watch the video to learn more about the robot here.

Learn more about the project here.

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