Firewalker

Posted: July 28, 2014 in False or true?, I robot
Tags: , , , , , ,

Anyone else there loved the X Files (at least during the first few seasons, before it became a closed loop ..)? I think I particularly enjoyed the first season, because every episode was a reference to some B-series horror movie. I think they made at least two approaches to Carpenter’s The Thing and one of them was Firewalker:

In this episode, some volcanologists go missing during an expedition and an exploring robot sends some creepy video feedback that caught Mulder’s flimsy attention. I’m not going to focus on the X File itself, but instead on the robot inside the volcano. Basically, because it is as real as it gets.

firewalker

If I recall the episode correctly, the robot in X Files was similar to italian Robovolc, which is an all terrain research robot funded by the European Union ICT program from 2000 to 2004. Robovolc, however, was just expected to explore volcanic areas, not to go inside the crater. The tracks were appropriate to move on lava flows, ash and spatter cones and large ground fractures, but if the robot rolled over inside the volcano, it would be over for it and recovery might be tricky at the very least in such an environment.

Robovolc

Reportedly, the best robots to cope with uneven terrains when rolling over may become a serious issue are legged ones (or mesh robots, like Tet-Walker, but those are still on the design table). In here, for example, one can watch Big Dog fall, roll over and get on its (4) feet again. This skill is crucial if a robot is meant to be dropped on parachute over a dessert or, case in hand, rappelled into a volcano.

Dante-cover (1)

Dante was developed in spider shape by the NASA precisely to roam a volcano from the inside and send video feedback home. Also as a local test for alternative planet explorers to Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, one would guess. Needless to say, Dante was christened after the Divine Comedy, since it was supposed to descend into hell.

Using its tether cable anchored at the crater rim, the robot descended into craters to gather and analyze high temperature gasses from the crater floor. Exactly like in the X Files episode. Furthermore, Dante I was built at Carnegie Mellon University around 1992, so the writers of the show probably used it as reference. In 10 months, Dante I had descended into an active volcano, Mount Erebus, in Antarctica. Eventually, the communications tether failed and the mission ended prematurely after only 20 feet, but the robot actually worked. Indeed, CMU developed Dante II, a second tethered walking robot, which explored the Mt. Spurr (Aleutian Range, Alaska) volcano in July 1994. Dante II worked fine (660 feet into the crater) until crashed by a huge rock on its way out. Given that the $1.8 million project remains buried there, it is comprehensible that they did not try again, even though these robots were pretty awesome.

Later experiments like RoboVolc or rackWalker-II settled for out-of-the-volcano exploration Maybe in a future smaller/cheaper spiders can be developed to go inside again. Unfortunately, there are two main problems to do smaller volcano-exploration robots: i) smaller legs can not cope with large obstacles like rocks and ground fractures; and ii) the equipment required to analyze gas and chemicals and to gather samples tends to be bulky. In the meantime, we have to settle with Dante’s videos 😦

 

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