The small motorboat meanders through the Amazonian swamp. The water is a turbid brown, the jungle a thicket of twisted trees. A cricrió bird chirps from the treetops. The Brazilian researchers stop the boat to have a look around. Suddenly a noise breaks the calm. Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Within seconds, an angry swarm of cabas , Amazon wasps with a powerful sting, envelops the boat and its unlucky occupants. To hear Ney Robinson Salvi dos Reis tell the story, you almost feel you're right there in the rain forest with him, fighting off the bellicose bugs.
”Jumping into the water is not a good idea,” Reis says. ”There are crocodiles, snakes, piranhas, and a bloodsucking little fish called candiru that can enter your body orifices. So I covered my head and told the mateiro ”—the Amazon native piloting the boat—”to get us out of there fast!”
For Reis, a robotics engineer at Petrobras, Brazil's state-controlled oil company, fleeing from wild wasps through treacherous waterways in excruciating heat and humidity is just part of the fun. He heads the robotics laboratory at Petrobras's underwater technology division in Rio de Janeiro. The company's main oil fields reside in deep waters off the Brazilian coast, so Reis's lab specializes in developing all sorts of Jules Vernian contraptions—a caterpillar-like robot to unclog underwater pipelines, a supersized hydraulic wrench that can work down to 2000 meters.
Petrobras also operates some oil fields inland, including Urucu, tucked deep within the Amazon rain forest. Sometime this year the company plans to complete a 670-kilometer-long pipeline to transport natural gas to Manaus, the region's largest city. The company will need to routinely inspect the line for leaks. That's where Reis comes in.
”You can't just hop in your 4x4 and go see if the pipes are okay,” he says. ”You need to cross rivers, igarapés [seasonal tributaries], flooded forests, and a floating cushion of aquatic vegetation that forms near the riverbanks.”
So Reis's team is building a pipeline-monitoring robot that can navigate just about any kind of terrain. Shaped like a dune buggy, it has four spherical wheels the size of overinflated beach balls, which let the robot float. The outer sides of the wheels have paddles, and powered suspensions can tilt the paddled sides into the water. The machine is called Chico.
The robot's main job will be to run up and down the pipeline using gas-sniffing sensors to find leaks. The current prototype is remotely operated, but Reis's group is designing a manned version for more complex inspection and repair missions. He says the robot will also help scientists gain unprecedented access to the Amazon, letting them film animals, record bird sounds, and collect plants and water samples. ”We're doing these engineering projects,” he says, ”to give people the ability to see, smell, hear the jungle—and protect it.”
Reis's inspiration to become an engineer came from his grandmother Irene, an elementary school teacher. Growing up in Rio, the young boy would marvel at the objects she built for her classes, from a simple tin-can phone to a dollhouse with numbered windows and doors to teach arithmetic.
In 1972, Reis earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and began working on the construction of nuclear reactors, iron-mining plants, and oil refineries. He took scuba-diving courses and worked on the construction of Brazil's first offshore platforms. ”It was a beautiful adventure,” he recalls. ”I finally understood the meaning of navy blue.”
In 1987, he joined Petrobras. At the time, the company was beginning to explore deeper and deeper waters and couldn't rely on divers anymore. It needed robots. Reis cofounded the robotics lab and helped the company reach some of the world's deepest oil reservoirs.
These days, when Reis is not out in the Campos Basin off Rio's coast or the Amazon jungle testing a new system, he's in the lab, making wooden models with his longtime assistant, José ”Geppetto” Almir Sena, or brainstorming with the graduate students he helps advise.
On a muggy spring afternoon, Reis heads out to the lab's pool to put the robot through a round of tests. Tall and tan, with green-gray eyes and a mane of brown and silver hair, he strolls gracefully, greeting everyone he sees. ”Opa, tá bom, menino?” he calls out to one acquaintance. ”Hey, you good, boy?”
In his cramped office, Reis keeps a binder labeled ”On the Anvil,” full of half-baked ideas he has scribbled on scraps of paper or napkins. ”You're at home, in the shower, the toilet, or whatever, and then, boom!—you're taken by the most wonderful of ideas,” he says. Many of those ideas become topics for his students' doctoral dissertations.
Reis enjoys giving talks at schools and universities about his projects and the importance of science and engineering. He's found it a useful technique for recruiting new members to his lab, which now includes, in addition to his full-time staff of four, about half a dozen master's and Ph.D. students and high school interns. ”Ney encourages the group to be creative, improvise, and above all, have fun,” says Gustavo Medeiros Freitas, a master's student. ”He wants to look into your eyes and see that you love what you're doing.”
Late last year, Reis and his team were preparing for another trip to the Amazon (he's been there more than 30 times in the past five years). He says the project is not just about going there, testing the robot, and leaving. He and his crew seek to involve local communities and hope the locals will eventually assist in operating and maintaining the robot. And what do the Amazon natives think of their futuristic wheeled visitor?
”The kids love it; they're totally unafraid,” Reis says. ”Once we were operating the robot, and this little boy ran toward it. I shouted, ’Be careful!' Then we stopped the robot. I took the boy in my arms and sat him on a wheel. He had the biggest smile on his face.”