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'spiderbots' Talk Amongst Themselves Inside Active Volcano

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Spiderbot on Mt. St. Helens

Helicopter drops off earlier version of spiderbot in the crater of Mount St. Helens, 2006.

USGS/Dan Dzurisin

A group of "spiderbots" released inside Mount St. Helens in Washington is the first network of volcano sensors capable of automatically communicating with each other and directly with satellites.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which helped develop and monitor the spiderbots, say similar networks of robot sensors could eventually be used to study geological activity on other planets.

Each spiderbot contains a seismometer for detecting earthquakes, an infrared sensor to detect heat from volcanic explosions, a sensor to detect ash clouds, and a global positioning system to detect ground movement and pinpoint the exact location of seismic activity.

Once deployed, the spiderbots can connect with each other to form a mesh network. "It's similar to the Internet," says JPL's Steve Chien. "You just lay them out, and they figure out the best way to route the data." One advantage of the spiderbot network is that it is self-healing, so if one spiderbot dies the others can automatically send data around the dead node.

The network also analyzes data on-site before sending it back to a base station, which enables the spiderbots to provide real-time risk assessment. "Scientists can sit in their office and see through the Internet what happened at Mount St. Helens one second ago," says Washington State University in Vancouver's WenZhan Song, the principal investigator of the project.

The network also can automatically request a satellite to take pictures if it senses an unusual tremor, or satellites can ask the spiderbots to focus their attention on a particular spot if it senses an unusual heat source.
From New Scientist
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Abstracts Copyright © 2009 Information Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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