UNM Group designs remote-controlled robot to detect potential slips: UNM Newsroom


The Smart Management of Infrastructure Laboratory (SMILab) at the University of New Mexico has created a remote-controlled (RC) robot designed to detect the potential danger of rockslides. The robot, affectionately nicknamed “Brutus”, spots damaged and unstable rocks for road safety inspectors, keeping them out of harm’s way during inspections.

“We have created an automated system to reduce the risks and hazards to the safety of inspectors,” said a recent PhD. Roya Nasimi graduate. “With Brutus, inspectors can remotely collect their data and results without approaching the structure they are inspecting,” she concludes.

To do this, Brutus consists of a mechanized tapping device with microphone and sound collection system, all mounted on an RC car base. A software algorithm written by Nasimi is incorporated to analyze the sounds created when the striking mechanism hits the rocks. The algorithm then calculates where the instabilities exist. By studying the algorithm’s output, inspectors can find rocks that are likely to fall and remove them, proactively reducing the risk of a future rockfall.

Nasimi, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, began working on this project in October 2020 as a doctoral student. candidate for the UNM.

“I started with a simple algorithm to classify different types of material and the sounds they contain,” Nasimi explained. She then performed lab tests on rock samples to discover the different characteristics of sounds created by intact rocks versus those created by cracked rocks. These test results were used to train and test its software algorithm.

“Technology is taking over and we are trying to automate inspections. What we have developed will help in this direction,” said Nasimi.

While Nasimi was developing the algorithm, his teammates, United States Marine Corps Second Lieutenant Joshua Murillo, graduate research assistant Jack Hanson, and mechanical engineering students Dominic Thompson and Solomon Atcitty worked to create the mechanized tapping system and assemble Brutus and its controls.

“Brutus is remote controlled, like what is used for RC planes. We programmed the controls on the car itself to move with joysticks, then we programmed the switch for Brutus to hit stuff,” Murillo explained.

Keystroke data is stored on a memory card on the RC vehicle. Once the tests are completed, the data is sent to the laboratory for further analysis. Murillo is working to automate this process even further. In the future, he plans for Brutus to transmit the data wirelessly to site inspectors. He is also working on adding internal backup systems for data.

Brutus has been successfully deployed in several field tests. A test took place along a road in Tijeras, NM, prone to rockfall. In the Tijeras test, they “were able to classify or distinguish the different regions [Brutus] hit on the side of the road,” Nasimi said. In another test, the team worked with the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) to inspect a site near White Rock, NM

“When Josh and I were there, it was quite an operation…We had to have road crews there watching traffic for us while we were nearby,” Hanson explained. He claims that the ability to deploy Brutus with one or two people will eliminate the need to close roads as Brutus is much smaller than one person.

“The added safety of being able to send a robot over there to tap on the cliffs along the roads…is a massive increase in safety,” Hanson pointed out.

In a similar test, Brutus was deployed in Cochiti Lake, NM Here, in addition to socket testing, the UNM team tested Brutus for future projects. They collaborated with the Natural Hazards Recognition Facility (RAPID) of the National Science Foundation Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) headquartered at the University of Washington (UW) to ensure that Brutus was based water for testing.

“They [UW] had a large RC boat rig that we put Brutus on. The Washington guys were controlling the boat and we were controlling Brutus from a distance and making sure he hit where he was supposed to hit. Jack, Solomon and I all worked together to waterproof and make the system… modular. We put it on the boat and the first day of testing we found a lot of water had splashed around, so Jack and I went back and actually waterproofed it,” Murillo recalled.

In addition to watertightness, other modifications of the Brutus are in progress to allow its deployment by regional inspectors on the piles and pylons of underwater bridges. Murillo explained that “what we are currently working on is doing aquatic rockfalls… [and] pier surveillance where we can tap on the side of the pier to see if it is about to collapse and check the safety of it. Then there’s another project I’m working on where we might see how to go underwater and use Brutus that way… for bridge pylons and such.

Murillo, who is working on his master’s degree in global and national security at UNM, hopes to follow this aspect of Brutus for his doctorate.

“The current Brutus model is splash proof. It’s not submersible, but it might take a lick…Jack and I went all the way to White Rock to drive Brutus through the snow and it was fine with the snow. But I’m working on a submersible. We will have many more versions of Brutus,” smiles Murillo.

“I find this to be a very interesting project, I started and now my teammates have taken this work forward using the same method with a different variation of the system and material to be used on different types of structures, not just falling rocks. In the future, it would be interesting to make a climbing robot. Rock inspectors are climbing, so it would be really interesting to make a climbing robot. It may be [a possible] future scope of the project,” Nasimi said.

The Brutus system is increasingly recognized as a tool to improve safety conditions for road inspectors and to help prevent rockfalls before they occur. The project resulted in two journal articles, a conference presentation, and several institutional and national presentations, including the 2021 Tran-SET (Transportation Consortium of South Central States) Conference, Mechanistic Machine Learning, and Digital Twins for Computational Science, Engineering and Technology (MMLDT) in San Diego and the 2022 Transportation Research Board Conference in Washington DC

The SMILab, under the direction of Moreu, is housed in the UNM’s Center for Advanced Research Computing (CARC) building. Moreu, along with Dr. John Stormont, a geotechnical and geomechanical expert in UNM’s Department of Civil Engineering, advised and supervised the students working on the Brutus project. Nasimi wrote his algorithm and performed all the lab experiments at CARC. Brutus was designed and built inside the RCAF building with the participation of officer cadets from the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Cyber ​​Security Training Program.The UNM ROTC Cybersecurity Training Program is led by Principal Investigator (PI) Moreu and Co-PI Dr. Francesco Sorrentino, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UNM.

Support for this project has come from a variety of sources, including the United States Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Tran-SET University Transportation Center at Louisiana State University.

Additional support for this project has come from an ongoing cybersecurity effort to Structural health monitoring (SHM) critical infrastructure projects funded by the New Mexico Consortium (NMC) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

Other thanks:

Brutus was developed under the direction of former SMILab researcher Marlan Ball. Ball coined the name Brutus, inspired by his interests in robotics and ancient history.

Xinxing Yuan and Mahsa Sanei, doctoral students at SMILab, participated in the tests on Brutus’ waterfront in the UNM pool and Lake Cochiti.

ROTC students Tim Thiergart, Porter Yang and Zane Dudney attended testing at Johnson Pool. Thiergart and Gabriel Zelaya participated in the Lake Cochiti trials.

John Gillentine, Fernando Gurule, Jose Montoya and Armando Mendiola assisted from NMDOT.

Amir Bagherieh, Assistant Research Professor of Civil Engineering at UNM, participated in the field selections.

Brutus’ first achievement was supported by the NMC and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 2016 in collaboration with LANL engineer Dr. David Mascarenas.

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Image courtesy of Dr Fernando Moreu


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