BADGER Project Develops a 3D Printing, Tunneling Underground Robot

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A badger.

As tunneling creatures go, badgers are some of the oddest-looking, but they’re also pretty cute, in their way. The European Union is a big fan of badgers, it seems, or at least it really wants to make you think of badgers with its underground robotic system. The BADGER project stands for “roBot for Autonomous unDerGround trenchless opERations, mapping and navigation,” but good luck remembering that using the acronym BADGER. Regardless, the idea is a fascinating one. BADGER leverages a system of tunneling robots that autonomously navigate beneath the surface of the Earth, opening up channels for bores and pipelines.

“The robotic system will enable the tunnelling of small-bore networks, support and stabilization of high curvature bores, the automatic detection and annotation of utilities and buried objects as well as the mapping and visualization of the 3D underground space,” states the project page. “At all times, BADGER will allow for complete monitoring and control of the underground operations by human workers and supports them with critical information about the process.”

Normally, to lay pipes or cables, construction workers have to dig trenches, place the pipes or cables inside, and then cover the trenches up again. Existing underground excavation equipment is expensive and can, for the most part, only dig in a straight line, rather than being able to create a winding network of tunnels. Furthermore, they can’t navigate around obstacles such as rocks and roots.

BADGER, on the other hand, can burrow underground, map its environment and autonomously navigate around obstacles thanks to advanced sensing capabilities. It can actually make its own decisions about how best to reach its end goals as it pushes its way through the rock and soil. The robotic excavator will consist of a combination of rotary and impact drilling technology along with an ultrasonic drill that pulverizes rock, and it even has a 3D printer module that prints the walls of the bore and constructs wall support using a 3D printing material such as resin.

The robot sucks up the rock that it pulverizes, then releases it out the back to keep the tunnels clear as it constructs both horizontal and vertical networks. BADGER consists of two main subsystems: the underground robot itself, and a control console operated by a human on the surface. The control console communicates with the underground robot either through wired connection or wireless repeaters installed along the tunnel.

The modular robot was inspired by inchworms, and has three different types of modules: drive modules, which propel and steer the robot; joint modules, which generate relative motion between two modules; and the tool module, which carries the bore-head component. The bore-head is interchangeable, depending on the application. The drive and tool modules carry power units, embedded processing units, communication units and embedded heterogeneous sensors like ground penetrating radar arrays, electronic navigation sensors and laser sensors that enable the robot’s perception, localization and mapping. Like the bore-head, the sensors are interchangeable depending on the application the robot is being used for.

Some of those applications may include:

  • Trenchless construction
  • Cabling and pipe installations
  • Search and rescue
  • Remote science and exploration
  • Defense applications

The BADGER project began in January of this year and has been funded with €3.7 million for the next three years as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 program – one of several such to use 3D printing in their plans. Seven institutions from five European countries are involved in the project, which is being led by Professor Carlos Balaguer, Santiago Martínez de la Casa and Carme de Andrés Sanchis from the University Carlos III of Madrid.

No prototypes are available yet since BADGER is still in its early stages, but we look forward to seeing them in the future, and to continuing to follow the progress of this strange underground inchworm-like 3D printing robot. Discuss in the BADGER forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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