3D Robotics


Congrats to Randy Mackay and the APM:Copter team, whose collaboration with Tohoku University was discussed in IEEE Spectrum today:

When Mount Ontake erupted in Japan a few weeks ago, it was completely unexpected. No significant earthquakes, no steam or gas releases, nothing. Usually, some warning does exist, and the best that we can to is to monitor active volcanoes as carefully as we can to try and spot whatever warning signs that are there. This is especially problematic with volcanoes that are undergoing frequent periods of activity, where it’s not safe to get close to them to determine when a minor eruption might turn into a major one. Not safe, you say? There’s a solution for that: send in the robots.

Keiji Nagatani, a professor at Tohoku University in Japan, has spent the last half decade developing robotic systems for volcano exploration. For the last few years, he’s been working on ways of exploring remote, potentially dangerous volcanic areas using UAVs in collaboration with ground robots. Here’s a video from a test last month on Japan’s Mount Asama:

The ground robot is called Clover, and the UAV is called Zion. The robots were controlled over a 3G connection from about 3 kilometers away. Since 3G can be unreliable and is vulnerable to terrain-induced blind spots, the researchers have developed a system to use more conveniently placed robots as signal relays. 

Clover robots could be equipped with small sensor packages, like a gas sensor, but it’s also important to be able to analyze rock samples directly. Strawberry is a robotic claw that hangs from the bottom of Zion and can be used to collect rocks or soil or stuffed alien toys or whatever else a claw dangling from the sky is good for picking up. If you watch closely, in addition to a claw device, there’s also an actuated roller that helps to scoop up smaller rocks and dust:

As far as I’ve been able to tell, none of these robots have yet been tested on an active volcano, but hopefully the Japanese researchers are getting close to doing that. Because one thing we’ve learned from previous disastersis that robots can be a huge help, so the more we test and improve them under real-world conditions, the better they’ll be when we really need them. 

Tohoku University ]

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  • Very nice project, congrats!

  • Excelent to see such working devices. Here a bit from its history to new registrants :-)


  • Developer

    Yes, I'm working a lot with EnRoute which is a 3DR retailer in Japan and they're doing a lot of work with multicopters including (most interestingly in my view) search and rescue.  They went to Ontake mountain and produced 3D maps of one section of the mountain to help the rescuers.

    It's early days though and we need some serious scaling up of our capabilities.  One part of this is getting the AntennaTracker working so that we can maintain communication with the copters/planes at long distances (10km+) while still complying with Japan's stringent restrictions on transmission power (20mW!).

    Also Michael Oborne is building out the Mission Planner to support multiple vehicles so that we can manage a large number of vehicles all flying/searching at the same time.

    Tridge is also looking to transform Canberra UAV's system used in the Outback Challenge into something that anyone can easily install and use on their vehicles.

    One other thing that I took away from the OnTake erruption is that the searching mostly stops at night.  If you're not rescued by the time the sun goes down, you're staying on the mountain till the next morning.  UAVs doing night flights with IR cameras, LIDAR and Terrain following will help a lot.

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