Engineering students help uncover history in CaveX project

CaveX team engineering university of adelaide
Students from the University of Adelaide’s Mechanical Engineering Honours program designed a robot to assist in the mapping of Naracoorte Caves, South Australia’s only UNESCO World Heritage site.

Meet 5 engineering undergrads who built an awesome robot to uncover ancient geological history hidden deep underground

In the dark corners of a cave, a six-legged robot carefully navigates uneven terrain. Delicately making its way through cramped spaces it scans the environment, collecting data.

The robot is the invention of five engineering students from the University of Adelaide’s Mechanical Engineering Honours program. It has been designed to assist in the mapping of Naracoorte Caves, South Australia’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The caves contain some of the richest fossil deposits in the world, with fossils dating back at least 500,000 years and spanning several ice ages. These fossil records chronicle Australia’s unique animal heritage, including the iconic Megafauna which became extinct around 60,000 years ago.

The project brief

The students in the CaveX project team were tasked with developing a mobile mapping platform to help address challenges being faced by researchers and palaeontologists in the restrictive and fragile environment of Naracoorte Caves.

“Their mapping system is big and bulky,” explains Hayden Lee, one of the University of Adelaide team members. “It has difficulty accessing and recording data in narrow and low parts of the caves, so they have missing data in their maps.” 

Designing a solution

In order to solve the problem, the engineering students used a model-based systems engineering (MBSE) process. Their design had to be capable of exploring and scanning previously inaccessible sections of the caves, such as tunnels and low underpasses, without damaging the delicate environment.

“We tackled these challenges by employing ‘biomimicry’ – mechanical design inspired by nature – to generate over 15 design concepts”, explains team member Matthew King. 

“Most of the challenges revolved around making sure that this design fulfilled what the stakeholders needed, which is critical in engineering”.

The result is an advanced robotic ‘walking hexapod’, modelled on a spider, with 360-degree laser scanning for vision and mapping capabilities. With six insect-like legs, the robot is able to achieve stability on uneven ground and move through small spaces in a way that reduces risk and environmental impact. 

Much smaller than traditional large scanners, it collects data continuously as it moves around. Software calculates where it wants the feet to touch the ground and the motor positions required to achieve it. 

CaveX engineering university of adelaide
The robot (pictured) was used to collect data from an underpass previously unmapped. The data can now be added to existing maps, giving researchers a more comprehensive understanding of the cave system.

Engineering success

Hayden and Matthew, along with their CaveX team members Jesse Cooper, Cameron Natt and Aaron Thomas, successfully developed the robot for their engineering Honours project. This exciting, hands-on project has already had a real-world impact. 

In October, the robot was used to collect data from an underpass previously unmapped. The data can now be added to existing maps, giving researchers a more comprehensive understanding of the cave system. 

“It’s a great feeling,” says Hayden, “Working on a project like this gave a real sense of purpose to my work that extends past lectures. It was also really eye-opening in showing what an engineering project is like from start to finish”.

A focus on the future

Opportunity exists for improvements to be made on the CaveX robot, such as upgrading software and giving it greater capabilities and intelligence, as it will now be passed on to a new team of budding engineers to continue the mapping mission.

It is hoped that it will help find new cave entrances and cavities that may lead researchers to more significant fossil deposits. 

The CaveX team study and career pathways:

  • Hayden Lee – Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Mechatronics) / Bachelor of Maths/Computer Science, University of Adelaide

Hayden is currently undertaking a cadetship at Defence Science and Technology Group, which will become a full-time job when he completes his tertiary studies.

  • Matthew Kind – Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Mechanical) / Bachelor of Mathematics/Computer Science, University of Adelaide
  • Jesse Cooper – Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Mechanical and Aerospace) / Bachelor of Science (Theoretical Physics), University of Adelaide
  • Aaron Thomas – Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Mechatronics), University of Adelaide
  • Cameron Natt – Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Mechanical) / Bachelor of Finance, University of Adelaide

This article was brought to you in partnership with the University of Adelaide

READ MORE: Want to save the planet? Study environmental engineering

Danielle Lucas

Author: Danielle Lucas

Danielle Lucas is a writer and former teacher. She has a Bachelor of Communications and a Grad Dip in Education. After 14 years in the classroom, she aims to tell stories to inspire young Australians.

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