GE’s soft robot bores holes like a giant earthworm

A giant earthworm robot was not on the list of things I expected to see when I logged in this morning. But it’s here, and I’m here for it. Designed by a team at GE Research, the robot in question nabbed a $2.5 million award as part of DARPA’s Underminer. The program was created to foster rapid tunnel digging in military environments.

As is all the rage in robotics these days, the GE team turned to biological inspiration to execute the task. What they came up with is a large, segmented and soft robot that inches along like a giant mechanical earthworm.

The robot’s muscles are designed to mimic a “hydrostatic skeleton” — a fluid-filled structure found in invertebrates. In the case of the robot, it’s artificial muscles that do the hard work of moving it forward, with a design that makes it adaptable to different underground environments. The design offers a range of freedom of movement, along with the ability to squeeze into tight spaces.

Another key to success is building in the proper sensors that allow it to function autonomously underground. It can, after all, be difficult to remotely control a robot in such a scenario.

“Because these tunneling systems are underground, we need to be able to build in autonomous and sensing capabilities that enable our robot to move and tunnel in the right places,” project leader Deepak Trivedi said in a release. “Fortunately, we’re able to pull in controls, AI and sensing experts from across the Lab to help us integrate these new capabilities.”

The project is promising, but far from finished. The end goal is a robot that can dig a 500-meter tunnel and move at 10 cm/sec underground. The above lab video shot at GE’s Niskayuna, N.Y. is sped up 4x.