Archaeological research today increasingly occurs in landscapes of physical danger and political conflict. Whether it's the extraordinary Roman site of Leptis Magna-located in present day Libya and suspected, in the summer 2011, of having been repurposed as an active military base for Qaddafi loyalists-or it's in contemporary Israel, where historical excavations are often tainted by nationalist pursuits, archaeological research needs a way to function even amidst scenes of extreme instability.
For instance, sites of archaeological research can literally be fatal for human workers: these are sites too dangerous to be staffed on anything like a regular basis. The radioactive landscapes of Chernobyl, the Hanford Site in Washington State, and the nuclear facilities at Sellafield, in England, are only three of the most highly contaminated sites at which industrial archaeology must, nonetheless, be pursued. There is much to learn-historically and scientifically-from these locations, but the actual work of forensic excavation is either prohibitively expensive or unacceptably dangerous for human workers. This difficulty extends to places the human body cannot reach at all-such as deep-sea shipwrecks-and to scenarios in which human precision simply is not accurate enough for what a site requires.
We thus propose an autonomous archeological field unit-or robotic excavation system-to be deployed in these and other extreme landscapes. The design of the system, including its instrumentation and motion controls, comes directly from the emerging fields of medical and construction robotics, as described above. Each robot arm can thus hold exceptionally fine tools of precision research-often modeled after dental equipment, including calipers, brushes, suction systems, picks, and piezoelectric scalars-as they painstakingly scrape down into the dirt and rocks, millimeter by millimeter.
Robust archaeological site grids-here, mounted with multi axis, geologically sensitive, force-feedback excavation arms-allow the system to slide freely over the excavation pit, which can potentially now expand to several acres in size. Until full autonomy for these systems can be realized, each arm will be operated individually by researchers living off-site, in the safety of a university lab or private research compound. Supervisory archaeologists who have not left their home or office in ages can thus watch and directly control an army of archaeological robots working on the other side of the world. High-definition cameras, lasers-scanning total stations, and ground-penetrating radar modules mounted on the robot arms, as well as on the rim of the project site, will allow for extraordinary spatial detail and contextual legibility.
A distributed research program, modeled after SETI@Home, could even someday be developed: this would allow for nearly anyone with an internet connection to perform archaeological research from their home or office, crowd sourcing the excavation process.
More importantly, these systems could be used in places human beings cannot survive: in heavily polluted or radioactive environments, including failed reactors; on the fringes of active war zones, when resupplying inhabited field camps becomes too difficult" underwater, offwater, offworld (for instance, the Apollo lunar landing site), and even far beneath the surface of the earth. These robots could also be installed pre-emptively inside buildings and cities on the verge of abandonment and collapse. After all, who will excavate the dead cities of the 22nd century? Robotic excavating arms could be added well in advance of future changes, dotting the contemporary cityscape like street-lights or highly patient statuary, awaiting their moment to dig, scrape, test, and forensically analyze lost urban worlds.
In the end, these robotic autopsies of the earth-digging down into the accumulated surfaces within which human history is laminated-could produce something as basic as fragments of shattered pottery, the weapons of a classical battleground, or the hull of an ancient ship. Or they could reveal something much more intricate: an entire buried city, like Pompeii or Brooklyn 45,000 A.D.
Somewhere, silhouetted on a windswept plain, surrounded by radiation warning signs, the sky above it red with encroaching storms, a crooked robotic arm will work away, assembling nothing amidst those future ruins but exposing a history that distant archaeologists would otherwise have lost forever.