Now that robots have proven they can clear IEDs, tour the then-radioactive Fukushima nuclear power plant, and observe endangered tortoises, the next natural step for these overachievers is investigating dangerous drug tunnels. Wired has a nifty report on how camera-equipped robots are helping out the folks over at San Diego's Border Tunnel Task Force--a group made up of the San Diego Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Agency--explore complex and perhaps dangerous drug-smuggling tunnels. It was surprising to learn how hazardous those tunnels could possibly be. Wired notes:
What you don’t know: where the other end is, who’s in it, what they’ve left behind. Is it booby-trapped? Is it big enough for a person to walk through? Is the air quality lethal? Who’s on the other end and where?
In about 10 or 15 minutes, without putting an agent into a terrifying hole leading to unknown danger, the Tunnel Task Force team can deploy a custom robot to gather some of those answers. Using an 80-pound robot that combines air sampling equipment, lights, a camera mounted on a robot motoring on tank treads, which is itself tethered to a broad, yellow coated bundle of wires that reels out behind it. Agents can get the robot about 500 feet into a tunnel to start to figure out if it’s safe to send an agent in and what gear the agent is going to need.
And they've included video (below) of an actual and elaborate (this particular tunnel has a ventilation system and lighting) tunnel, driving the point home (for your claustrophobic correspondent at least) about the value of these robots. You can read the whole article over at Wired.