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Technology

A Robot to Stop the Earth

This mechanical spider could help prevent damage and deaths from natural disasters.

By Susan KruglinskiMarch 28, 2004 6:00 AM

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Every year landslides cause 25 to 50 deaths and $1.5 billion in damage in the United States. They account for 15 percent of the deaths from natural disasters in Europe. And in December, a single event killed more than 200 people in the Philippines. Sending workers to stabilize mountainsides using steel rods and cement can help prevent disaster, but it introduces new difficulties. Vibrating drills generate noxious dust and loosen heavy, potentially hazardous debris. “It’s quite a risky job,” says Giorgio Pezzuto of D’Appolonia, an engineering firm in Genoa, Italy.

D’Appolonia, working with eight other companies, may have an answer: a three-ton robot called Roboclimber. “The idea is to remotely operate a machine that can drill without a human being on board,” says Pezzuto, manager for the project, which is funded by the European Commission. Engineers claim that the device will be faster and cheaper than manual labor. The prototype, a giant radio-controlled four-legged mechanical spider, has cost a relatively modest $2 million so far. The final version should be able to climb unstable mountainsides, drill holes, insert rods and cement, and collect data on the slope’s stability. Testing should begin in May.

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