Don's diary: a hot bot keeps scientists safe

November 7, 2003

Monday
The box with the final version of "the rover" has just arrived from the UK. The modifications performed should overcome the drawbacks of the last trials. Over the past four years, many engineers and volcanologists have been involved and we have evolved into a community of professionals and friends.

The idea behind the Robovolc project was to design a robot to explore and perform measurements on volcanoes. Little by little, overcoming a huge number of obstacles, we are now here. At the beginning of the project I was awaiting the birth of my daughter. Now I await the final results of the Robovolc project - in this case, it was a very long pregnancy.

Wednesday
The six-wheeled rover works well in the lab. The integration of the science package is almost ready and today the final version of the manipulator arm arrived from France. The science package will take all the measurements needed, while the manipulator arm collects rock samples.

In our plans, all components had to be here at least two weeks ago. We now have only two days to prepare everything. The team is ready to work through the night.

Friday
Conditions are good. The volcano has been quiet over the past few weeks. I have been on top of the Etna craters many times in very different conditions over the years. Raining stones, ash plumes, massive explosions, lava flows, earthquakes and snow storms are not unusual in this environment.

Our robot is designed to save volcanologists from being exposed to these risky situations, but during the trials we must stay with it until we are sure it is reliable.

Everything is ready and packed in the off-road vehicles. With an active volcano, it is not easy to prepare an exact schedule for the trials. We were scheduled to use as a base station the observatory Pizzi Deneri at 2,900m altitude, but the most recent eruption, in January, destroyed both the roads that serve it.

We stop on the base of the crater of the January 2002 eruption. It is incredible that this huge cone was formed in less than a month.

Everything starts working well: the robot is moving, the science package starts to take measurements and the arm starts sampling rocks. However, the soil is too soft for the wheels we used today, so we are forced to interrupt the trials.

Saturday
Up early again, loading up the cars and trying to not forget anything. Today we have a different type of tyre with us and we will perform the trials inside the craters of the January 2003 eruption. The soil is still hot and steam and gas shoot out from the terrain.

Inside the crater, the rover really acts like a volcanologist while the real human volcanologists are in a safe place with us. Even if the volcano decided to wake up now, there would be no humans in the crater.

Four years from the beginning, despite the involvement of more than 50 technicians, some things still need a little work, but what can't be bettered are all the smiles on the tired faces of the group, pleased that all their hard work has finally begun to bear fruit.

Giovanni Muscato is professor of robotics and coordinator of the European Commission's Robovolc project, based at the University of Catania, Italy.

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