Robot to improve wombat health

Australian researchers are using a new remote-controlled robot, WomBot, to explore previously inaccessible burrows, and improve wombat health.

Researchers at La Trobe University and the University of Tasmania used the technology to determine whether wombat burrows may harbour scabies mites – a parasite that causes sarcoptic mange in wombats.

Published in SN Applied Sciences the study found that wombat burrows were cool and humid – very similar to conditions that enable mites to survive for long periods.

La Trobe University’s Dr Robert Ross said wombats occupy a different burrow every four to ten days, making their homes critical to understanding how sarcoptic mange can spread.

“We found that the wombat burrows on average sat at around 11 degrees, and had humidity levels of around 85 per cent.

“We estimate that female mites could survive for between 16 and 18 days in these conditions – meaning that infected wombats could be leaving mites behind for the next occupant to catch,” Dr Ross said.

Dr Ross said the WomBot enabled the researchers to gather information that was previously difficult to access.

“Wombat burrows are narrow, muddy, and can be dozens of metres long and contain steep sections and sharp turns,” Dr Ross said.

“WomBot allowed us to enter and explore burrows without destroying them or using expensive ground-penetrating radar.

“This gave us a deep understanding of the environmental conditions that might be facilitating the spread of this disease,” Dr Ross said.

Dr Ross said the next step was to potentially use the WomBot to help eradicate mites.

“We’re exploring whether the WomBot could be used to deliver insecticide, or other means to destroy the scabies mites,” Dr Ross said.

Further research could use WomBot to create three dimensional reconstructions of burrows, or to collect soil samples from burrows to study mite prevalence.

WomBot is remotely operated and moves using continuous tracks, similar to a tank tread. Fitted with front and rear cameras, it can enable burrow visualisation, and climb inclines of up to 22 degrees.

Environmental sensors can measure the temperature and humidity of a burrow while a gripper attached to its front can be used to place and retrieve additional environmental sensors.

The researchers used WomBot to explore a total of 30 wombat burrows in Tasmania during September 2020.

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