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Rockslides, meet Brutus

March 2, 2022 - Melanie Furber Fudge, UNM Center for Advanced Research Computing

The University of New Mexico’s Smart Management of Infrastructure Laboratory (SMILab) has created a remote-controlled robot designed to detect potential rockslide danger.

photo: Brutus the robot outside in the snow, on a cliffside.

The robot, affectionately nicknamed “Brutus,” pinpoints damaged and unstable rocks for roadside safety inspectors, keeping them safely out of harm’s way during inspections.

“We have created an automated system to decrease the risk and safety hazards for inspectors,” said recent Ph.D. recipient Roya Nasimi. “With Brutus, the inspectors can remotely collect their data and their results without approaching the structure they are inspecting.”

To accomplish this, Brutus is constructed of a mechanized rock-tapping device complete with microphone and sound collecting system all mounted on a robot-controlled car base. A software algorithm written by Nasimi is incorporated to analyze the sounds created when the tapping mechanism strikes the rocks. The algorithm then calculates where instabilities exist. By studying the algorithm’s output, inspectors can find rocks that are prone to falling and remove them, proactively reducing the risk of a future rockslide.

Nasimi, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, began working on this project in October 2020 as a Ph.D. candidate at UNM.

“I started with a simple algorithm to classify different types of material and the sounds collected from them,” she said.

She then conducted laboratory tests on rock samples to discover the different characteristics of the sounds created by intact rocks versus those created by rocks with cracks. These test results were used to train and test her software algorithm.

“Technology is taking over, and we are trying to automate inspections. [What we have developed] will help in that way.”

While she was developing the algorithm, her teammates U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Joshua Murillo, graduate research assistant Jack Hanson and mechanical engineering students Dominic Thompson and Solomon Atcitty worked to create the mechanized tapping system and assemble Brutus and its controls.

“Brutus is remote controlled, like what is used for robot-controlled planes. We programmed the controls for the car itself to move with joysticks, then we programmed the switch to have Brutus hit stuff,” Murillo said.

The tapping data is stored on a memory card on the robot-controlled vehicle. After the testing is complete, the data is taken to the lab for further analysis. Murillo is working to automate this process even further. In the future, he plans to have Brutus transmit the data wirelessly to the inspectors at the site. He is also working on adding internal backup systems for the data.

Brutus has been successfully deployed in several field tests. One test was along a roadside in Tijeras that was prone to rockfall. In the Tijeras test, they “were able to classify, or distinguish, between the different regions [Brutus] hit on the roadside,” Nasimi said. In another test, the team worked with the New Mexico Department of Transportation to inspect a site near White Rock.

“When Josh and I were out there it was quite the operation ... We had to have road crews out there watching traffic for us while we were nearby,” Hanson said.

He said that the ability to deploy Brutus with one or two people will eliminate the need to close roads because Brutus is a lot smaller than a person.

“The increased safety of being able to send a robot out there to tap cliff sides along roads … is a massive increase in safety,” he said.

In a similar test, Brutus was deployed at Cochiti Lake. Here, in addition to the tap tests, the UNM team was splash-testing Brutus for future projects. They collaborated with the National Science Foundation Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure and the Natural Hazards Reconnaissance Facility headquartered at the University of Washington to make Brutus waterborne to perform the tests.

Murillo said he and the team worked together to waterproof and make the system modular and eventually waterproofed it. Other modifications of Brutus are under way to enable it to be deployed by regional inspectors to tap piers and underwater bridge pylons.

“What we are working on now is doing aquatic rock fall … [and] pier monitoring where we can tap the side of the pier to see if it is about to collapse and check the security of it,” he said. “Then there is another project I am working on where we might see about going underwater.”

Murillo, who is working on his master’s degree in global and national security at UNM, hopes to follow up on this aspect of Brutus for his Ph.D.

“The current Brutus model is splashproof. It is not submergible … but I am working on a submergible. We will have a lot more versions of Brutus.”

Nasimi said she found the project to be interesting and has enjoyed seeing her teammates advance the work.

The Brutus system is gaining recognition as a tool to improve safety conditions for roadside inspectors and to aid in preventing rockfall situations before they happen. The project has resulted in two journal papers, one conference presentation, and several institutional and nationwide presentations, including the Tran-SET (Transportation Consortium of South Central States) 2021 conference, the Mechanistic Machine Learning and Digital Twins for Computational Science, Engineering & Technology conference in San Diego, and the 2022 Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C.

The SMILab, under the direction of Fernando Moreu, is housed in the UNM’s Center for Advanced Research Computing (CARC) building. Moreu, along with John Stormont, professor and expert on geotechnical and geomechanics in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, advised and oversaw the students working on the Brutus project. Nasimi wrote her algorithm and performed all lab experiments at CARC. Brutus was designed and built inside the CARC building with involvement from ROTC cadets from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) cybersecurity training program.

Support for the project came from various sources, including the U.S. Department of Transportation University Transportation Center Tran-SET at Louisiana State University. Additional support for this project came from an ongoing cybersecurity effort for Simple Harmonic Motion of critical infrastructure funded by the New Mexico Consortium and the ONR.

The researchers also would like to acknowledge that Brutus was developed (and named) under the guidance of former SMILab staff researcher Marlan Ball.


  • SMILab PhD students Xinxing Yuan and Mahsa Sanei assisted on the waterfront testing of Brutus in the UNM swimming pool and Cochiti Lake.
  • ROTC students Tim Thiergart, Porter Yang, and Zane Dudney assisted the testing at the Johnson pool. Thiergart and Gabriel Zelaya assisted with the Cochiti Lake testing.
  • John Gillentine, Fernando Gurule, Jose Montoya and Armando Mendiola assisted from NMDOT.
  • Amir Bagherieh, research assistant professor of civil engineering, assisted with the field selections.
  • The first realization of Brutus was supported by the NMC and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 2016 in collaboration with LANL engineer David Mascarenas.