Wombat burrows in Australia can be 10 to 100 feet long and 11.5 feet deep. This makes it quite challenging for scientists to gain a full understanding of how a deadly disease affecting wombats spreads through these complex tunnels. To overcome this hurdle, robotics researchers at La Trobe University in Melbourne have developed the WomBot, a robot that can easily navigate and gather valuable data from wombat burrows.
Studying wombat burrows has long been a challenge for scientists, says Scott Carver, a disease ecologist at the University of Tasmania. Because they’re too small for humans to crawl into, many researchers resort to “destructive methods,” such as digging up the burrows or drilling holes into them.
“The WomBot makes a big difference to studying burrows because it is non-destructive and can be used to study a much larger number more efficiently,” Carver tells Fast Company. Together with Robert Ross, who led the development of WomBot, Carver’s research team recently published a study detailing how WomBot enabled them to explore 30 wombat burrows in Tasmania.
The small robot can be operated remotely and uses continuous tracks like a tank to explore the narrow, uneven terrain of wombat burrows. As part of its burrow expeditions, the robot helped the scientists by measuring temperature and humidity and leaving environmental sensors to record those metrics over a period of time.
The collected data will help the researchers learn how the parasitic mites that cause sarcoptic mange might be surviving in the burrows, transmitting when one wombat passes through another’s tunnels.
“The WomBot has been helping us understand how long the mites can survive in the burrows,” says Carver. “In winter this appears to be 15 to 16 days and in summer 4 to 6 days. This information can help us understand when efforts to treat wombats for mange are likely to have the greatest impact on reducing disease.”
Treating the disease not only could protect wombats from their most pressing existential threat, but also have wide-ranging effects on surrounding wildlife, since wombats serve as “ecosystem engineers,” with their burrows benefitting all sorts of animals.
In addition to exploring burrows, the WomBot could eventually also help reduce the spread of mange by delivering insecticide or heating the tunnels to get rid of the mites.
Image source: La Trobe University in Melbourne