“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