Home / Technology / Manufacturing / DARPA’s underminer to develop tunneling robots and concepts for underground operations for emerging tunnel Warfare

DARPA’s underminer to develop tunneling robots and concepts for underground operations for emerging tunnel Warfare

Criminals, terrorists and military have been using  tunnels since long time to evade detection as surface based detection methods are ineffective underground .  There has been an explosion of underground warfare in the last five years. From sophisticated cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels discovered in northern Israel to defensive tunnels that criss-cross the urban battlefields of Syria, Iraq and the Philippines, a tactic familiar to history buffs has emerged as a characteristic of modern war.


Military and Security forces also have interest in developing robots to target  tunnels dug by Militaries and terrorists . One of the ways to avoid the dangers miners and explorers is to use  mobile robots for search and rescue. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed advanced technologies and methodologies for 3D mapping and surveying of underground environments under the agency’s Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, which aims to equip troops and first responders with superior capabilities to effectively execute missions underground.


Now DARPA has launched a new program to build the tactical tunnels to be exploied by US army for ultrafast logistics and fighting against it’s adversaries  The goal of the Underminer program is to demonstrate the feasibility of rapidly constructing tactical tunnel networks that enable secure, responsive resupply. A tactical tunnel network could provide secure logistics support infrastructure, such as pre-positioning supplies in advance of an operation or providing ongoing resupply as troops move through an area. The ability to rapidly bore tactical tunnels could be helpful in contingency operations such as rapid ammunition resupply or rescue missions.


Currently, no Department of Defense military occupational specialty includes tactical tunnel creation or exploitation; and current tunneling operations primarily rely on exploratory bores and above ground guidance beacons. Underminer aims to create aggressive tunneling approaches, downhole sensing, and operations concepts that surpass these limitations, and could incorporate capabilities from the commercial sector, including oil and gas, utility, geological, environmental, and other industries.


“The Underminer program aims to develop and demonstrate tactical uses for rapidly created underground infrastructure in contested environments,” said Dr. Andrew Nuss, the Underminer program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “The ability to quickly bore tactical tunnels could benefit contingency operations such as rapid ammunition resupply, rescue missions, or other immediate needs.”Resulting new technologies could improve future underground infrastructure systems, including, but not limited to, high speed drilling, precise positioning without external aids, obstacle avoidance and sensing, and drilling analytics.


DARPA awards

DARPA has selected three performers to develop technologies and solutions for the Underminer program that would surpass current commercial drilling capabilities. Underminer aims to demonstrate the feasibility of rapidly constructing tactical tunnel networks to provide secure logistics infrastructure to pre-position supplies or resupply troops as they move through an area.


Teams from General Electric Research Center and Colorado School of Mines will focus on development of an integrated solution for Underminer technology and operational needs. A third team, Sandia National Laboratories, will conduct technology exploration and integration to address current process and system limitations.The performers will focus on tunneling approaches, downhole sensing, and operations concepts. Underminer seeks to merge breakthroughs in horizontal drilling, trenchless boring technologies, and robotics to create a set of systems allowing consistent underground access.


General Electric  awarded $2.5 million to develop a robotic tunneler that borrows both from the common earthworm and tree roots.

GE and the Colorado School of Mines will develop an integrated solution for operational needs, while Sandia National Laboratories will address current process and system limitations. The Underminer program is attempting to merge horizontal drilling, trenchless boring and robotic technologies to enable the rapid construction of underground tunnels for various battlefield situations.


GE’s tunneling robot uses biomimetics—the imitation of nature to solve engineering problems for humans—to imitate an earthworm not only in form, but function. Earthworms rely on muscular structure filled with fluid, called the “hydrostatic skeleton.” When they move, some sections of their structure radially expand to enlarge the tunnel while anchoring the worm, while others become longer to create movement and penetrate further into the soil.


GE has been exploring an earthworm-like robotic design to create a machine with great ability to dig and move quickly underground, which Project Leader Deepak Trivedi said will help also advance inspection and repair capabilities. “It turns out earthworms are probably the most prolific tunnel makers on the planet,” he said. “We have designed a prototype that is several feet long, with hydraulic artificial muscles that mimics the agility of earthworms moving through soil and with the force of tree roots penetrating through soft rock.”


The robo-worm uses the same process to dig forward, which draws inspiration from the way tree roots slowly burrow through soil. Tree roots, according to GE, “can penetrate through highly compacted soils and soft rock by generating high pressures through tissue growth.” The robo-worm generates those pressures by inflating its muscles, displacing the soil ahead of it.


GE’s 15-month goal is to develop a robot that can dig at a rate of 10 centimeters (3.93 inches) a second and dig a tunnel 500 meters (1,640 feet) and 10 centimeters in diameter. An operational robo-worm working for the U.S. military would likely be considerably bigger, capable of moving a meaningful amount of supplies.




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