A team of roboticists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering 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.
Conventional sheet pile driving processes are extremely energy intensive. Only a fraction of the weight of typical heavy machinery is used for applying downward force. The Wyss team’s “Romu” robot, on the other hand, is able to leverage its own weight to drive sheet piles into the ground. This is made possible by each of its four wheels being coupled to a separate linear actuator, which also allows it to adapt to uneven terrain and ensure that piles are driven vertically.
From a raised position, Romu grips a sheet pile and then lowers its chassis, pressing the pile into the soil with the help of an on-board vibratory hammer. By gripping the pile again at a higher position and repeating this process, the robot can drive a pile much taller than its own range of vertical motion. After driving a pile to sufficient depth, Romu advances and installs the next pile such that it interlocks with the previous one, thereby forming a continuous wall. Once it has used all of the piles it carries, it may return to a supply cache to restock.
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.
“In addition to tests in the lab, we demonstrated Romu operating on a nearby beach,” said researcher Nathan Melenbrink. “This kind of demonstration can be an ice-breaker for a broader conversation around opportunities for automation in construction and land management. We’re interested in engaging with experts in related fields who might see potential benefit for the kind of automated interventions we’re developing.”
The researchers envision large numbers of Romu robots working together as a 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.”
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. 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.
In many scenarios for environmental protection or restoration, the opportunity for action is limited by the availability of human labor and by site access for heavy machinery. Smaller, more versatile construction machines could provide a solution. “Clearly, the needs of many degraded landscapes are not being met with the currently available tools and techniques,” said Melenbrink. “Now, 100 years after the dawn of the heavy equipment age, we’re asking whether there might be more resilient and responsive ways to approach land management and restoration.”
Editor’s Note: This article was republished from Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.