A four-legged ‘Robodog’ is patrolling the Large Hadron Collider

The robot's quadruped locomotion helps it look for hazards in cramped and cluttered experiment spaces inaccessible to other robots.
Caption: CERT’s four-legged Robodog can manuevuer throguh cramped spaces and use sensors to spot fires, leaks, or other hazards.
Caption: CERT’s four-legged Robodog can manuevuer throguh cramped spaces and use sensors to spot fires, leaks, or other hazards. CERT

Traversing through the dark, underground areas of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland isn’t for the faint of heart. The world’s most powerful particle accelerator violently smashes protons and other subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light, which can emit radiation at levels potentially harmful to humans. If that weren’t enough, long stretches of compact, cluttered areas and uneven surface areas throughout the facility make stable footing a necessity. 

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) are turning to four-legged, dog-inspired robots to solve that problem. This week, CERN showed off its recently developed CERNquadbot robot which they said successfully completed its first radiation survey in CERN’s North Area, the facility’s largest experimental area. Looking forward, CERN plans to have its “Robodog” trot through other experiment caves to analyze areas and look for hazards. 

Why does CERT need a robot dog? 

The hazardous, sometimes cramped confines of the LHC’s experiments caverns pose challenges to both human workers and past robot designs alike. Temporary radiation levels and other environmental hazards like fires and potential water leaks can make some areas temporarily inaccessible to humans. Other past CERT robots, while adept at using strong robotics arms to carry heavy objects over distance, struggle to traverse over uneven ground. Stairs, similarly, are a nonstarter for these mostly wheeled and tracked robots. 

That’s where CERT’s robot dog comes in. CERTquadbot’s four, dog-like legs allow it to traverse up and down and side to side, all while adjusting for slight changes on the ground’s surface. A video of the robot at work shows it tic-tacking its four metal legs up and down as it navigates through what looks like pavement and a metal grated floor, all the while using onboard sensors to analyze its surroundings. A human operator can be seen nearby directing the robot using a controller. For a touch of added flair, the robot can also briefly stand up on its two hind legs. The Robodog had to use all of its various maneuverability during its recent test-run up the North area, which was reportedly filled with obstacles. 

“There are large bundles of loose wires and pipes on the ground that slip and move, making them unpassable for wheeled robots and difficult even for humans,” CERN’s Controls, Electronics and Mechatronics robotics engineer Chris McGreavy said in a statement.

Thankfully for the CERN scientists, the Robodog rose to the occasion. And unlike other living dogs, this one didn’t need a tasty treat for a reward.

“There were no issues at all: the robot was completely stable throughout the inspection,” McGreavy added. 

Now with the successful test completed, CERN says it’s upgrading the robot and preparing it and its successors to deploy in experiment caves, including the ALICE detector which is used to study quark-gluon plasma. These areas often feature stairs and other complex surfaces that would stump CERN’s other, less maneuverable robots. Once inside, the robot dogs will monitor the area for hazards like fire and water leaks or quickly respond to alarms. 

CERN directed PopSci to this blog post when we asked for more details regarding the robot. 

Dog-inspired dogs are going where humans can’t 

Four-legged quadruped robots have risen in popularity across numerous industries in recent years for their ability to nimbly access areas either too cumbersome or dangerous for humans and larger robots to access. Boston Dynamics’ “Spot,” possibly the most famous quadruped robot currently on the market, has been used to inspect dangerous offshore oil drilling sites, explore old abandoned mining facilities, and even monitor a major sports arena in Atlanta, Georgia. More controversially, law enforcement officials in New York City City and at the southern US border have also turned to these quadruped style robots to explore areas otherwise deemed too hazardous for humans. 

Still, CERN doesn’t expect its new Robodog to completely eliminate the need for the other models in its family of robots. Instead, the various robots will work together in tandem, using their respective strengths to fill in gaps with the ultimate goal of hopefully speeding up the process of scientific discovery.