A team of robot engineers at Harvard's Wyss Institute has developed a robot that can autonomously drive interlocking steel sheet piles into soil.
Sheet piles are driven vertically into the soil forming structures that stabilize the ground. They can be placed in developed riverbanks as barriers to mitigate erosion or flooding. Moreover, they can be used in construction projects to provide support for retaining walls, foundations and excavations. It is a significant stabilization method for construction, mining and agriculture.
The study that introduces robotic sheet pile will be presented in the fore-coming 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
The conventional technique of sheet piling is challenging as only a small proportion of the machinery's weight is applied to drive the pile inside the ground. On the contrary, the team's "Romu" robot is capable of leveraging its own weight in order to drive the piles into the soil mass. Romu drives the pipe into the ground with the utilization of an on-board vibratory hammer.
The robot is able to operate even in uneven ground. Its wheels are coupled to a separate linear actuator that ensures that the piles are driven perpendicularly inside the soil. When a single procedure is over, Romu continues to install the next pile that interlocks with the previous one to construct a continuous wall.
The project was initially developed to investigate potential methods for automated site preparation and installation of foundations. However, the team realized that it could also be applied for land restoration in remote places. "In addition to tests in the lab, we demonstrated Romu operating on a nearby beach. This kind of demonstration can be an icebreaker 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," researcher Nathan Melenbrink, stated.
The researchers' vision is to create a group of robots that could operate together in remote regions (e.g. steep slopes that need to be stabilized). The team performed computer simulations showing that such a group could adapt to unexpected or changing conditions. Future versions of the robot could carry out more tasks such as installing silt fencing or spraying soil-binding agents.