Robots in Extreme Environments: Robots Take the Field

Going where no human dares to go, today’s robots are successfully gearing up for exploration in the most dangerous of conditions—but there is much more work to be done.

Robots have been put to work to take people out of hazardous situations, from inspecting wind turbines to cleaning chemical tanks. But increasingly, they are operating in places that are hazardous to the robot itself.

Robots have worked for years in industry and agriculture, where the ability to stand up to heat, dust, and vibration is critical. But as humans look further and further afield to find resources or conduct research, robots are being sent to the bottom of the ocean, to other planets, and into caves, damaged nuclear reactors, collapsed buildings, and lava fields— extreme environments that bring new and complex engineering challenges.

In this white paper, key points include:

  • Over the years, engineers have come up with innovative ways to reach and work in extreme environments, with tracked, wheeled, flying, and swimming robots to traverse complicated terrain.
  • In recent years, increasingly powerful autonomy capabilities have opened up new possibilities for robots in extreme environments.
  • For years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has held robotics competitions that have become a focal point for innovation in the field. These have included a series of events in which robots navigated various subterranean environments, where the rigors of the terrain and difficulties in communicating have prompted competitors to turn to autonomous operations.
  • DARPA challenges have demonstrated the importance of system resilience in extreme conditions—that is, the ability for the robotic team to recover from problems rather than try to totally prevent problems up front.
  • From volcanoes to the ocean to Mars, engineers see opportunities to explore underground environments in space, as well as surface regions.

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