We first saw GE’s tunneling robot in May 2020, working its way through a makeshift tunnel inside of a research lab. Now GE Research, the technology development arm of GE, is showcasing what the robot can do in a real-world setting.
GE Research released a video that showed a prototype of the system “autonomously and continuously” tunneling underground at the group’s campus in Niskayuna, NY. The soft robot slid past small rocks and obstacles as it carved a 10 cm diameter tunnel. You can watch a video of this demonstration below.
We reached out to GE Research for more specifics about how long the tunnel was and how long it took to make. If we hear back, we’ll update this story with those details. One of the original goals was to have this robot move at a speed of 10 cm/sec and dig a tunnel that is 500 meters in length and at least 10 cm in diameter.
GE Research worked with InnoVital Systems to design the robot. InnoVital Systems designed and supplied the pneumatic artificial muscles that were integrated into the soft robot design. These muscles mimic the muscular structure and function of the earthworms.
“By creating a smaller footprint that can navigate extreme turning radiuses, function autonomously, and reliably operate through rugged, extreme environments, we’re opening up a whole new world of potential applications that go well beyond commercially available technologies,” said Deepak Trivedi, a mechanical engineer at the mechanics and design group at GE Research.
Designing the system as a soft robot enables it to have more degrees of freedom than conventional robots with joints. With no joints or bones, soft robots have the flexibility to make sharp turns, squeeze through small, confined spaces and move objects of vastly different shapes or sizes.
“In the future, we want to enable deeper, in-situ inspection and repair capabilities that would enable more on-wing inspection and repairs or enable major power generation equipment like gas and steam turbines to be inspected and repaired without removing them from service for lengthy periods of time,” Trivedi said. “The advancements we have made on this project support key developments needed to make that possible.”
The development of this robot is part of a $2.5-million project through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Underminer program. GE has also used Sarcos Robotics’ snake-like Guardian S robot for maintenance applications.
Carnegie Mellon University years ago developed its infamous snake-like robot. CMU recently made changes to the robot that enable it to swim underwater, which allow it to inspect ships, submarines and infrastructure for damage.