Jean Li is an archaeologist. Specifically, she's an Egyptologist, she reminded me as we stood in a marina warehouse on Tuesday in Hamilton, Ontario. We were surrounded by robots.
Bald and pink-faced police officers were milling about or running bomb-defusing robots through test courses provided by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which sets international standards for robot performance. It was an unusual place to find an archaeologist, but Li also had robots to test. She and a team of computer scientists and roboticists from Ryerson University in Toronto are developing remote-controlled machines to explore the unstable underground tunnels that are dug by looters, and may be filled with overlooked archaeological treasures.
"You can imagine a site with extensive looting—tunnels, shafts, etcetera—that would create conditions that are not safe for researchers," she said. "In some areas, we're looking at sites that look like Swiss cheese."
Ancient sites that have been ravaged by looters mean that scientists and researchers can't safely go where their competition has already been.
"Robots can go into these difficult-to-access locations," Li said. "We'll be able to see not just the damage from looters, but what's left behind, so archaeologists can decide if the area is worth further exploration."
The robots that were tested by Li and her team at the marina are pretty different from each other. One looks like a steel insect crossed with a lifted truck and is able to deftly crawl across uneven terrain. However, its long tether got crisscrossed and stuck while circling the track. The operators cut the power and begin pulling it back with the tether. It was good practice—they may have to do the same thing if a robot stalls 100 metres down a pitch-black tunnel.
The other robot has a chassis that looks like it's made out of wood and uses treads instead of tires to move. "It's a more cost-effective model," the robot's operator told me, just a bit sheepishly. It doesn't do so well on the test track. This robot, too, could be valuable in the field.
"Because these robots are cost-effective, they're designed to be abandoned until we can find a way to retrieve them at a later time," Li said. By "cost-effective," she told me, she means about $6,000 per robot. That's a lot of money for someone in her field, she added, but for roboticists it's chump change.
The biggest hurdle these robots will face, however, is probably going to be the desert conditions they'll have to contend with. The robots have been tested in near-dark, and the NIST test track does a decent job of presenting operators with a spread of challenging environments to pilot their bots through. But it's downright sanitary compared to the nooks and crannies these robots will eventually find themselves in.
A robot-filled marina warehouse in Ontario might be a strange place to find an archaeologist, but an archaeological dig site in the desert is a strange place to find a robot.
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