Mole-bot, a drilling biomimetic robot designed by KAIST, boasts a stout scapula, a waist inclinable on all sides, and powerful forelimbs. Most of all, the powerful torque from the expandable drilling bit mimicking the chiseling ability of a mole's front teeth highlights the best feature of the drilling robot.
The Mole-bot is expected to be used for space exploration and mining for underground resources such as coalbed methane and Rare Earth Elements (REE), which require highly advanced drilling technologies in complex environments.
The research team, led by Professor Hyun Myung from the School of Electrical Engineering, found inspiration for their drilling bot from two striking features of the African mole-rat and European mole.
"The crushing power of the African mole-rat's teeth is so powerful that they can dig a hole with 48 times more power than their body weight. We used this characteristic for building the main excavation tool. And its expandable drill is designed not to collide with its forelimbs," said Professor Myung.
The 25-cm wide and 84-cm long Mole-bot can excavate three times faster with six times higher directional accuracy than conventional models. The Mole-bot weighs 26 kg.
After digging, the robot removes the excavated soil and debris using its forelimbs. This embedded muscle feature, inspired by the European mole's scapula, converts linear motion into a powerful rotational force. For directional drilling, the robot's elongated waist changes its direction 360° like living mammals.
For exploring underground environments, the research team developed and applied new sensor systems and algorithms to identify the robot's position and orientation using graph-based 3D Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology that matches the Earth's magnetic field sequence, which enables 3D autonomous navigation underground.
According to Market & Market's survey, the directional drilling market in 2016 is estimated to be 83.3 billion USD and is expected to grow to 103 billion USD in 2021. The growth of the drilling market, starting with the Shale Revolution, is likely to expand into the future development of space and polar resources. As initiated by Space X recently, more attention for planetary exploration will be on the rise and its related technology and equipment market will also increase.
The Mole-bot is a huge step forward for efficient underground drilling and exploration technologies. Unlike conventional drilling processes that use environmentally unfriendly mud compounds for cleaning debris, Mole-bot can mitigate environmental destruction. The researchers said their system saves on cost and labor and does not require additional pipelines or other ancillary equipment.
"We look forward to a more efficient resource exploration with this type of drilling robot. We also hope Mole-bot will have a very positive impact on the robotics market in terms of its extensive application spectra and economic feasibility," said Professor Myung.
This research, made in collaboration with Professor Jung-Wuk Hong and Professor Tae-Hyuk Kwon's team in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for robot structure analysis and geotechnical experiments, was supported by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy's Industrial Technology Innovation Project.
Operation and excavation videos for Mole-bot can be seen at https://youtu.be/pEnKy5UYEYQ
KAIST is the first and top science and technology university in Korea. KAIST was established in 1971 by the Korean government to educate scientists and engineers committed to the industrialization and economic growth of Korea.
Since then, KAIST and its 64,739 graduates have been the gateway to advanced science and technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. KAIST has emerged as one of the most innovative universities with more than 10,000 students enrolled in five colleges and seven schools including 1,039 international students from 90 countries.
On the precipice of its semi-centennial anniversary in 2021, KAIST continues to strive to make the world better through the pursuit in education, research, entrepreneurship, and globalization.