Burrowing robots to unearth nature’s subterranean secrets

ASU engineers are developing new bio-inspired technology to expand the capabilities of underground wireless sensing networks

November 8, 2018

Robots are increasingly at work on land, at sea, in the air and out in space. Three Arizona State University engineers are now setting the stage to deploy robotic mechanisms in what might be the toughest environment the technology will encounter: underground.

“We want to make robots effective tools in a place where there are so many things that could stop them from working,” said Junliang “Julian” Tao, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. ASU Associate Professor Junliang “Julian” Tao (left) has spent the last few years researching the effective and highly efficient self-burrowing mechanisms of animals — looking at their varied subterranean locomotive abilities. He is extending this research to a new collaborative project to design and develop below-ground sensing networks using robots that mimic burrowing animals and plants. Tao is shown here with 3D-printed early prototypes of a clam-inspired burrower. He is being assisted in the work by Yong Tang (center) and Sichuan Huang (right), doctoral students in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Tao has earned support from a National Science Foundation Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research Signals in the Soil award to develop “paradigm-shifting platform technology” for “self-boring robots” from which the next generation of underground wireless sensing networks can be launched.

Tao is teaming with Fulton Schools Assistant Professors Daniel Aukes and Hamidreza Marvi to devise approaches for modeling, designing, prototyping and defining the essential technological characteristics of such networks using bio-inspired robots.

The new grant enables the team to develop sensors that can be integrated into robots capable of deploying themselves autonomously and boring underground with minimal disturbance to the soil and minimal operational intervention by humans on the surface. The robots will also be able to change locations and return to the surface for maintenance as needed.

The robots will operate in wide-area subterranean sensing networks that will be especially valuable for evaluating the conditions of soils at sites where building foundations, dams, levees, tunnels, roads, irrigation systems and other infrastructure are to be constructed.

The system will enable more precise agricultural practices, ground contaminant monitoring and other environmental health assessments. Other benefits of the system over current technologies would be more efficient below-ground geotechnical, biological and water studies and better predictive analysis of the vulnerability or resiliency of land to impacts from earthquakes or flooding.

“An active underground wireless sensing network like the one we are proposing is basically nonexistent,” Tao said.

There are a few sensing networks for underground applications but most use wired sensors, which makes installation and maintenance difficult.

Wireless sensing networks without cumbersome wires and cables are gaining popularity for above-ground applications, Tao says, so developing these networks for underground applications is the next logical step to advance the technology.

Achieving the goals hinges on the researchers devising sensor robots that can replicate the locomotive and penetrative capabilities of burrowing animals and plant life.

Specifically, they want self-boring robots that can mimic what moles, worms, clams, plant roots and seeds do in excavating, digging and undulating their way into and through sand, silt, clay and the many other types of soils — and around the many subsurface obstacles.

Multiple challenges stand in the research team’s way.

“It will take exceptionally flexible and robust robots,” Aukes explained. “They will be confronted with solid materials, liquids and gases, all the things that can foul traditional robots.”

Beyond refining the robotics and sensing technologies for such an undertaking, the project requires making robots capable of a range of burrowing techniques optimally suited to navigating in soil, Marvi said.

The team must also clear hurdles that have so far stalled significant advances in below-ground sensing networks.

Installation of current systems can require extensive excavations and keeping immobile buried sensors operating at peak efficiency is troublesome.

Soils can cause energy dissipation resulting in degradation of the electromagnetic waves sensors use to transmit information, Tao said. This causes unreliable communication between a network’s sensing nodes.
With self-boring robotic sensing nodes, the researchers expect to overcome those drawbacks with sensors that deploy themselves autonomously, thus alleviating the need for excavation.

The sensor nodes can also change locations after being buried, providing a “dynamic” sensing network — in other words, a network able to cover large subterranean areas.

Tao points out that the sensors will be capable of surfacing from underground for service and recharging. Sensor nodes will also be able to move closer to each other to improve data transmission reliability.

The team will also formulate strategies for effective underground sensor signal transmission, the recharging of sensors, the actuation and control of the robots, and communication between all the network components.

The researchers are also tasked with developing a rapid prototyping method to systematically design and fabricate the robots that will be adaptable in underground environments.

The team will use 3D printing, materials science and soft robotics to find solutions using nontraditional materials, flexible elements and designs that enable navigation through granular mediums like soil and sand.

That wide-ranging array of objectives is why Tao says he wanted specific collaborators who would bring multiple areas of expertise to the endeavor.

Aukes has experience in robotics design and manufacturing and systems integration, which entails bringing together component subsystems into a whole and ensuring that they can function together. He directs the IDEA Lab — Integrating Design Engineering and Analysis.

Marvi can contribute skills in bio-inspired technology, the mechanics of animal locomotion and soft robotics. He directs the Bio-Inspired Robotics Technology and Healthcare lab

Tao’s work focuses in part on soil behavior, bio-inspired sensors and smart construction technologies. He is on the team of the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at ASU, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center known as CBBG.

The mix of capabilities and expertise makes Tao confident the team can take a formidable step toward “revolutionizing” underground sensing technology that will have a significant impact on a range of scientific and engineering pursuits.

The project will also provide hands-on experience and education for students. The NSF award provides $300,000 over two years, some of which will support the participation of two engineering doctoral students in the research.

The team wants to bring undergraduate students into their labs through the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative and is planning education outreach that will bring first-generation college undergraduates and high school students from underrepresented communities to learn about CBBG’s research.

Robotic technologies draw the interest of young students, Tao says, but his research project has the added attraction of “showing them all the things we are learning from animals and nature,” and why it’s valuable to preserve those sources of knowledge.

Tao, Aukes and Marvi foresee underground networks of bio-inspired, self-boring robotic sensors revealing more secrets of nature that will inspire further efforts to push the technology toward new possibilities.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Military training helps student veteran navigate disability

November 8, 2018

Future is bright for ASU West student Don Knowles, who lost his vision five years ago

Arizona State University student Don Knowles is his own beacon of light.

The 58-year-old Marine Corps veteran is hopeful and optimistic about his future.

He also lives in darkness.

He lost his sight five years ago but has used the lessons he learned in the military to start a whole new life. So far, he has succeeded. As a returning student, Knowles has made his mark in the classroom and on ASU’s West campus, where he is pursuing a communication degree and serves as a mentor to others.

“I have opportunities I’ve never had before,” Knowles said. “I have met all kinds of new people and have set goals for myself that I would have never done otherwise. I have a couple of job offers waiting for me when I graduate. I feel very comfortable with my life.”

In honor of Salute to Service Week, ASU Now spoke to Knowles about his military service, his extraordinary life and what his future holds.

Question: Why did you join the military?

Answer: I joined the military because I have roots there. My grandfather was in the Army for 20 years. My father did not join the military and I felt compelled to do so at a young age. I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being in the service?

A: The organization of the system. I enjoyed the routine, which I did not have in my childhood. My childhood was very disruptive. I liked the structure and the opportunity to advance through the ranks through my hard work.

Q: What lessons did you learn in the military that you apply in your daily life?

A: I think the greatest lesson I took away from the Marines was — if you get knocked down, get yourself up as soon as you can and move forward so as to not drag everyone around you down. I’ve applied that to my life, especially my situation with me becoming blind. I’ve applied it in the sense that I know I have a responsibility to myself and others to do the best I can. Get up, move forward and do it with a smile.

Q: How did you lose your sight?

A: I was a project manager in commercial construction and had an appendix attack at work. I made it through that day and the next, but by the third day it was obvious that I was in serious trouble. So I went to the hospital and a very young surgeon performed an emergency appendectomy on me. He accidentally cut an artery and I bled out on the table. The trauma team was called and I used up 27 units of unoxygenated blood. It swelled up my nerve bundles and once the swelling went down, they just dissolved and it left me totally blind. I woke up in the ICU and on full life support.

I had been severely injured before, and I came through it OK, so when I was experiencing blindness, I thought it was going to be temporary and thought it would pass. But as the months went by and the more doctors I saw, it became obvious the blindness was permanent. I made a conscious choice to get up off the floor and move forward with my life and accept my fate. I will spend the rest of my life in the dark without seeing anyone smile at me, the trees or a sunset, all things I had taken for granted before, and it’s gone. But instead of being depressed and sad about it, I turned that energy into learning all I can, learning about myself and other people, and it has been an amazing transition. I do feel very optimistic about the future.

Q: How do you like being a college student? What has that transition been like for you?

A: I enjoy the learning aspects of college and the experiences. It has been somewhat of a difficult journey in the sense that as a totally blind student, more often than not I’m the first blind person anyone here has encountered in their life. With that comes a responsibility on my behalf to represent myself in a courteous and respectful manner so that the next blind person they encounter, they can refer back to the experience with me and say, ‘I’ve already met one of these people and they’re OK.’” I make an effort to communicate well with people, be honest with them and be myself. It’s taken me a long way.

Q: What is your goal after you receive your degree?

A: My goal when I receive my degree at Arizona State University is I will continue toward my master’s degree at Western Michigan. It’s a 14-month focused master’s program for blind rehabilitation therapy and I plan to apply as a counselor and a technology instructor for the Veterans Administration Hospital. I have a solid standing job offer with them as well as several blind schools, who also need qualified instructors.

Top photo: Communication student Don Knowles listens to his instructor in a Sept. 21 class for ASU students who have recently transferred from community college at the West campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

In celebration of Veterans Day, Arizona State University proudly honors veterans and active members of the military through Salute to Service. Your support helps veterans succeed. Text ASUVets to 41444 to donate to the Veterans Education Fund or visit veterans.asu.edu to learn how you can honor a veteran.