Colombia landslide: robots and landslides

CRASAR’s connection in China, Dr. Juan Rojas, saw this about the Bello, Colombia landslide. Our sympathy and prayers for the victims and their families.

Landslides are tough for robots. CRASAR’s Sam Stover and I assisted with the 2005 La Conchita, California, mudslide which is described here. The short version of what we learned was that the land or mud fluidizes and becomes like water, filling every possible gap. Voids are rare and it’s not a matter of a robot penetrating dense rubble, it’s a matter of being able to be an earthworm and burrow into solid dirt.  “Regular” robots can help search collateral damage but aren’t going to be much use for the buried portions.

BUT GREAT POSSIBILITIES! After my Gegenheimer Lecture at Georgia Tech last week, I met with Dr. Dan Goldman who is working on robotic versions of sand lizards which can burrow. This was the first realistic hope I’ve seen for a robot that could quickly penetrate the soil and perhaps find one of those few voids with trapped air (and survivors). Plus Dr. Carolina Chang got involved in rescue robotics after the landslides in her country, so with this kind of focus perhaps we can improve the odds in the future.