Robotic turtles can be used to detect landmines in the desert

When it comes to detecting landmines, being slow is an advantage. Swarms of robotic sea turtles teaching themselves to crawl in the Arizona desert could one day be used to help clear landmines in war zones.

The military already has minesweeping robots, but their bulk makes them costly and difficult to deploy – something the turtle bots could help resolve.

The robotic turtles, which are about the size of a small drone, are laser-cut from two sheets of cardboard before being folded together origami-style and fitted with an inexpensive computer chip and motors that move their fins. Each robot only takes 2 to 3 hours to put together and costs around $80, so losing one in a landmine blast isn’t necessarily a huge setback, says Heni Ben Amor, joint leader of the project at Arizona State University.

Ben Amor thinks that swarms of up to 100 turtle bots, which move at about 5 centimetres per second, could be deployed to scour desert sands for landmines, alerting humans when they find one and tagging it for removal.

Creating autonomous robots suited to different deserts can be tricky because each of these terrains has a particular type of sand. If you train a turtle bot to crawl in one desert, it could end up going nowhere if it tries to move in the same way in a desert with different-shaped sand grains. Rain and changing humidity can also change the desert surface and make it impossible for robots to move.

To get around this problem, Ben Amor programmed his turtle bots with an algorithm that lets them adapt their crawling technique each time they’re faced with a new surface. Drop a turtle bot on unfamiliar sand and after a couple of hours it will have altered its fin movements to let it crawl more efficiently. Ben Amor will present his research at two robotics conferences in July.

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