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Robots help archaeologists to explore pre-Incan ruins in Peru

Robots help archaeologists to explore pre-Incan ruins in Peru

Engineering students developed camera-equipped robots to help probe 3,000-year-old tunnels without disturbing ancient structures or endangering human lives.
December 5, 2018
The ruins of Chavin

The ruins of Chavín de Huántar preserve remnants of a civilization that flourished from 1300 to 500 B.C. | Photo courtesy of John Rick

In the Peruvian Andes north of Lima, robotics students are helping archaeologists explore the ruins of the pre-Incan civilization of Chavín de Huántar.

More than 3,000 years ago, Chavín was the center of a religious cult that reinforced the authority of the region’s ancient rulers. John Rick, an archaeologist with Stanford Humanities and Sciences, has spent 25 years studying the tunnels and underground passages where priests once used light, sound and psychotropic drugs to reinforce the authority of Chavín’s rulers.

In this video made during the summer of 2018, Stanford engineers joined Rick to show how camera-equipped robots can help archaeologists survey underground spaces.

PhD student Margaret Coad brought a snake-like soft growing robot called Vinebot to Chavín. Developed in the lab of Stanford mechanical engineering professor Allison Okamura, Vinebot grew its way through tunnels too small for humans to explore. Master’s student Jack Lane and undergraduate Daniel Chan used their mechanical engineering skills and a grant from the Global Engineering Program to build the four-wheeled Chavín Rover, a robot that made an important find captured on this video.

Rick, author of the forthcoming book Innovation, Religion and the Development of the Andean Formative Period, said robots can help make discoveries without digging or disturbing ruins. “We’re talking about whole new ways of doing archaeology,” he said.