A robot will be rebuilding Pompeii from fragments

Scientific American reports on a project using autonomous robots to reassemble the smallest fragments of the ruins of Pompeii:

Their project—dubbed RePAIR (Reconstructing the Past: Artificial Intelligence and Robotics meet Cultural Heritage)—melds robotics, AI and archaeology in an attempt to reconstruct architectural features of Pompeii that would otherwise remain incomplete, because they’re either too complex or would require impossible amounts of human labor and time.

Over the next several months, the IIT researchers and their collaborators at a handful of international universities will build, train, test and deploy a robot to piece together ruined wall frescoes in two buildings. In the first building, they know what the frescoes should look like because they were intact until recently. The investigators have no idea what the frescoes in the second building depict. Its fragments have lain in a storage room for decades waiting for someone—or something—to put them back together.

RePAIR is experimental and might fail, admits Arianna Traviglia, director of the Venice-based IIT Center for Cultural Heritage and Technology and a principal investigator of the project. It’s funded by a 3.5-million-euro grant from a European Commission fund that supports risky projects aimed at “radically new future technologies.”

In Pompeii, the researchers are in the process of manually digitizing every fresco fragment in the two test sites to create a digital database for the RePAIR robot. Once the whole system is fully operational, though, “we’ll have the robot doing the scanning process itself,” [project coordinator Marcello] Pelillo says.

When robots can handle routine digitization, humans are free to handle more complex tasks. Graduate students can’t scan 24/7 without food, water or sleep—but a robot can. “The idea is to work towards automating as much as possible this quite time-consuming and also boring activity of digitizing cultural heritage,” Traviglia says.


The humanoid robot is composed of a torso and arms being developed by Nikolaos Tsagarakis and his colleagues at the Humanoid & Human Centered Mechatronics lab at IIT in Genoa. With arms 80 to 100 centimeters long and a weight of 25 to 30 kilograms, the robot will be about the same size as the upper body of an average person.


Hands will attach to the arms through sockets at the wrist. They’re being designed in the lab of Antonio Bicchi, a senior scientist at IIT in Genoa and the chair of robotics at the University of Pisa, who has developed robotic hands for use in industry and as prosthetics. At Pompeii, the soft robotic hands will need to grasp, move and orient fragments of varying sizes and weights with extreme care—and gather information about them in the process. These hands are like soft but smart gloves that are embedded with tactile, kinesthetic and position sensors. Ideally, Bicchi says, people will be able to wear them over their own hands one day to gather additional data that human hands can’t obtain on their own.