Robotics within USACE: The future is right now

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published July 19, 2022

A robotic system known as DamBot™ operates near closure gates at Blue Mountain Dam, Arkansas in October 2020. Dambot™ takes the human element out of a dangerous but necessary U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintenance task. The cutting-edge technology has been successfully tested and stands poised to change the course of closure gate assessments, while also safeguarding USACE team members. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

A team from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is utilizing robotics to help keep U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) team members out of harm’s way and enable successful completion of the Corps’ vital civil works mission.


USACE operates and maintains more than 700 large dams across the country, many of them past their expected design life and in deteriorating conditions, and inspectors must make regular assessments to ensure safe and continued operations. This is no small task, particularly when it comes to earth dams.


Utilizing a gate to control water levels, earth dams feature an outlet works structure that includes a tunnel that can be up to half a mile long. Construction materials are vulnerable to corrosion and fatigue issues that may compromise the structural integrity of the system and put personnel entering the tunnel in hazardous conditions.


“Soldiers in theater have an inherently risky jobs and often need access to unmanned systems,” Dr. Anton Netchaev, a research computational scientist in ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), said. “The same is true here – allowing USACE team members to complete certain tasks remotely significantly improves safety and increases capabilities. We can use our technology, the DamBot™, to create a full picture for dam inspectors to assess conditions without putting themselves at risk.”


The DamBot™, a robotic platform carrying a variety of sensors such as high-resolution cameras and Lidar, can create an extremely detailed model of the entire outlet works system. Typically, an inspection involves a human physically entering the tunnel to take photographs of concerning spots and document anomalies by hand.


The DamBot™ allows for precise and repeatable inspections that can be viewed remotely, meaning inspectors can do their jobs from a safe distance. Successful field tests were held at Blue Mountain Dam in Arkansas and Mojave River Dam in California, where a smaller version of the platform was demoed.


“This year we are expanding our infrastructure inspection capabilities through acquisition of a second DamBot™ platform, as well as a 17-foot robotic arm that will allow us to get up close to some very challenging-to-reach places,” Netchaev said. “We are also working on collaborative task execution between robotic platforms and will soon stand up an Edge Computing Facility, which will give us some additional space to work on these very complex and challenging problems for the Corps.”


ITL team members are also collaborating with employees from ERDC’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) to develop hardware and software for robotic platforms that support military applications. Much the same as the DamBot™, CERL’s Robotics for Engineer Operations program has a goal to keep combat engineers out of harm's way by giving them the ability to operate heavy machinery beyond visual line of sight.


“ERDC is a large organization with a wide variety of engineers and scientists across seven labs and is exceptionally suited for this task,” Netchaev said. “A successful robotics group requires a multidisciplinary team to design, construct, program and maintain the very complex system of systems that is a robot. Our team consists of electrical, computer, mechanical and systems engineers, as well as chemists, physicists, biologists, computer scientists, geographers, and so on. Each brings a unique perspective and expertise that allow us to tackle these huge problems for the Soldier and the Nation.”