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Where scientists fear to tread

Volcanologists need to get close to active volcanoes to collect vital information on impending eruptions, but in doing so they can put their lives at risk. Researchers from Leeds, with international partners, are developing a mobile robot able to venture into areas where scientists could be in serious danger, or could simply not survive.

For a robot to replace a scientist, it must be able to move across rough terrain to collect samples of gas or ash. Robots do have advantages over humans: they can survive harsher conditions, go deeper into vents and craters to take samples of emissions before they mix with the atmosphere and stay within the eruption zone for several days.

“At Leeds we’re developing the robot’s navigation and remote control systems,” explained professor of robotics and control Gurvinder Virk. “Volcanic terrain can be anything from solidified lava flows to loose scree and rocks, and can change with each eruption. For safety reasons, the user may need to be over 4km away from the robot, without line-of-sight communication, but still be able to control it effectively.”
Professor Virk’s design uses a differential global positioning system with phase correction, able to identity features on the ground under 5cm in size, in conjunction with detailed maps to pinpoint the position of the robot. A laser scans for undulations in the ground, and can identify obstacles which the robot will automatically avoid, and several cameras send video pictures direct to the user, to aid navigation. Tilt meters and compasses tell the robot where it’s going and when it’s becoming unstable.

“The user directs the robot remotely using a joystick,” said Professor Virk. “It can follow a route around a crater, for example, and store waymarks, so that the following day it can automatically retrace its steps, taking samples from exactly the same positions for proper comparison.”

The robot’s base, and manipulator arm for taking samples are being developed by BAe systems and French company Robosoft. Other partners in the ‘Robovolc’ project include the University of Catania in Sicily, and two French volcanology research groups. The work is funded under the European Commission’s information science technology programme.

The robot had preliminary tests on Mount Etna this month, and Professor Virk was pleased with its performance. “The tests went well, and we’ll now be looking at ways to make further improvements before the first serious tests take place early next summer. We’ll be returning to Etna, and going to nearby Vulcano and Stromboli, both of which are continually erupting, allowing us to test the robot in the most demanding conditions.”


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