For years, tomb raiders targeted what remains of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in Italy, digging tunnels underground to steal and traffic artifacts from its lavish homes, some of which date back more than 2,600 years. The tunnels have also helped excavators find new artifacts. But the authorities of Pompeii say many can’t safely be explored today because they could collapse — so they’ve brought in a robot dog to help.
The robot, which with a slight stretch of the imagination resembles a four-legged dog, is called Spot. It was developed by the technology firm Boston Dynamics, and is equipped with an autonomous, laser-based scanner, and a color camera with a 360-degree field of vision. As of last year, its base cost was $75,400, with customized add-ons tending to drive up the price.
It’s among the first real-world examples of autonomous robots being used in archaeological sites, which are typically more difficult because of their large size and changing surfaces, according to Pompeii Archaeological Park Director General Gabriel Zuchtriegel. It’s part of a broader initiative to preserve the structures of Pompeii, some of which collapsed in 2010, and to modernize the management of the site.
The goal is for Spot to walk around Pompeii autonomously, across bricks and dirt, at night and during the day, to monitor existing buildings for structural weaknesses and to assess the progress of restoration work and search digs, especially in areas that could be dangerous to humans.
It can be accompanied by a flying device to capture 3D scans of the structures.
Spot is being tested as part of an initiative called Smart@POMPEI, which focuses on how technology can improve the management of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
“Technological advances in the world of robotics … have produced solutions and innovations typically associated with the industrial and manufacturing world, but which until now had not found an application within archaeological sites due to the heterogeneity of environmental conditions, and the size of the site,” said Zuchtriegel in a news release dated Monday.
Zuchtriegel said the Pompeii Archaeological Park will try using Spot to inspect the illicit underground tunnels, with the green light from Italian law enforcement, which has worked to stop the tombaroli, or tomb raiders, and recover the lost artifacts of Pompeii. “Often the safety conditions within the tunnels dug by grave robbers are extremely precarious, and so the use of a robot could signify a breakthrough that would allow us to proceed with greater speed and in total safety,” he said.
In 2008, the Italian government declared a state of emergency over Pompeii, which it said was falling apart under the pressures of tourism, poor weather, mismanagement and neglect. In 2010, several of the ancient city’s key sites collapsed, prompting UNESCO to strike a deal with Italian authorities to jointly preserve Pompeii, which is one of only about 1,100 sites on the World Heritage List.