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    The Laser-Wielding Robot That Roams Landfills to Sniff Out Methane Gas

    The Gasbot prototype, via Orebro University

    Methane is the second most common human-created greenhouse gas currently eroding the ozone and exacerbating global warming—and gas leaks in landfills make for about 17 percent of methane emissions in the US. So, being able to detect methane leaks and monitor emissions is a key part of fighting climate change, yet roaming trash dumps to sniff out hazardous gas isn’t high on the list of desirable human jobs. 

    Cue the robots. Researchers at Orebro University in Sweden have developed a gas-sniffing, mobile robot that uses laser beams to find gaseous areas and an algorithm to map them. Researchers are calling the Gasbot “a big leap forward” for automating the gas monitoring process.

    The Gasbot, which is funded by the robotics research institute Robotdalen, is equipped with two lasers, a GPS, and a remote sensor. The Remote Methane Leak Detector sensor doesn't require direct interaction with the substance to measure it, like traditional sensors do. Instead, the laser beam can sniff out and localize leaks in its path.

    Until now, workers have used traditional sensors like metal oxide sensors, which do need to physically touch the gas. In other words, a human has to walk through hoards of garbage and get up close and personal with the hazardous gaseous substance—within a few centimeters. The Gasbot, on the other hand, can wheel around on its own and detect methane from afar.

    "Mobile robots can outperform human operators since they are able to conduct repetitive measurements without suffering from fatigue, and they can be exposed to hazardous conditions," researchers wrote a report on the experiment.

    The Gasbot’s algorithm also generates digital, 3D maps of the locations and concentrations of methane gas.

    The green marks are raw readings reported by the GPS, the blue marks are the output from the localization filter and the red arrows represent the robot’s orientation. Via

    A prototype of the robot was successfully tested in the field, but researchers point out it still has a ways to go before it can be commercially marketed and let humans off the hook. The next step is to make the ‘bot self-sufficient for days or weeks at a time, wandering miles of garbage all by its lonesome, WALL-E-style.

    The wheeled machine also has to be able to traverse the cumbersome obstacles you’re likely to find in a landfill. This is where innovations like the recently developed “snake robots” have an advantage. The snake-like machines developed by the Carnegie Melon Robotics Institute are built to go where humans can’t—they can wriggle through power plants, climb pipes and reach otherwise inaccessible areas, while taking footage with attached lights and cameras. The machines could feasibly do the same in dilapidated buildings, contaminated homes, or dangerous mines.

    They join a growing crop of hero robots being developed to help protect humans in or from a disastrous situation. The most recent, and most advanced hero-bot to make headlines is Atlas, a super-lifelike, six-foot-two, 300-pound humanoid built by Boston Dynamics and funded by DARPA. The towering robot is part of the agency’s Robotics Challenge to develop software and hardware to build disaster-relief robots to take over hazardous jobs from humans, DARPA wrote in a news release.

    The hope is these hero robots of the future will “reduce casualties, avoid more destruction, and save lives," says DARPA. Just maybe they can help save the environment too.

    Topics: hero-bots, climatechange

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