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The little robot that could

Professors of history and computer science collaborate on robot archaeology project
By: Antoinette Mercurio
October 13, 2017
Jean Li working on the robot

Photo: History Professor Jean Li, left, preparing the robot to investigate the el-Hibeh site in Egypt.

What happens when an Egyptologist and a roboticist work together? You get a robot that can explore the dark and sandy depths of an ancient desert town in Egypt.

Professors Jean Li, history, and Alexander Ferworn, computer science, and program director of the master of digital media (MDM), collaborated on designing a robot for Li’s archaeological dig during the summer. What started out as a class project turned final exam, became a real-life site assessment at el-Hibeh, a 3,000-year-old city in Egypt that has been affected by age, erosion and looting since it was first discovered.

Students from Ferworn’s MDM program constructed six robots with one being chosen to be used in Egypt. MDM grad Rob Blain and computer science PhD candidate Jimmy Tran were the two students who contributed to the final robot prototype that went to Egypt. The robot was mostly designed and constructed at the Isaac Olowolafe Jr. Digital Media Experience Lab.

Mounted with a GoPro, the robot travelled 27 metres underground to relay information back to Li and her team about what the site looked like. Using a robot to investigate the site proved to be an ideal choice given the narrow spaces of el-Hibeh and the importance of preserving its delicate landscape. It’s a good first step in learning more about certain areas of the site.

“Overall it was a successful mission,” Li said. “The robot was deployed six times over four days and helped us assess the environment.”

The dig wasn’t without its hiccups. The robot performed really well but because of erosion, looting and modern debris changing the original layout of the el-Hibeh site, the robot had trouble moving on loose sand and travelling up 45-degree angles.

“There’s nothing that can replace the human experience of going through a site,” Li said. “But this is the first step in learning about the site. The robot was always meant to be a tool, not to replace the human archaeological element.”

For Ferworn, the collaboration was an important part of informing his work as a roboticist.

“I’m into public safety; robotics is a part of that,” he said. “Without the cross-disciplinary collaboration, we couldn’t seek knowledge. I’m a big believer in it.”

The experience was also a learning opportunity for Li. As a history professor and Egyptologist, Li’s expertise isn’t in operating or repairing robots. Li says it was an interesting experiment for her team to handle the robots themselves (Ferworn was not on the trip) – learning how to drive it, navigate it on rough terrain and troubleshooting any issues.

There was back and forth messaging between Li and Ferworn’s team in Toronto to help with on-the-fly repairs for technology that didn’t come with an instruction manual.

“It’s a miracle things were fixed and they were able to make do,” Ferworn said.

Despite the stress of being in the middle of the desert in a foreign country, the excursion has helped Li get a better sense of ancient Egypt.

“This is all in the spirit of exploration,” she said. “The site at one time was a town where people lived, loved and died. They have left behind signs of their life and we’re rounding out a picture of the past that seems so removed from modern society. It helps us figure out how we got here.”