If you drive over the 40th Street Bridge, you’ll notice a huge, bright yellow steel structure slowly going up on the Lawrenceville side of the river.

Those golden girders represent a milestone in the 22-year history of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), an operating unit of Carnegie Mellon. At 20 feet tall and 54 feet wide, The ARMOR1 is the largest robot ever created at the Center, and may soon prove critical to regional efforts to maintain our waterways.

The robot, which the Center officially introduced last week, is designed to automate the process of mat sinking, a term for arranging large concrete blocks, or mats, at the bottom of a river. The process protects the riverbed and banks from erosion, in turn protecting the entire river ecosystem, along with the communities that depend on it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts a yearly campaign of mat sinking along the Mississippi River. While the work is key to maintaining one of the nation’s main economic arteries, it’s also slow and labor intensive, with much of the equipment more than 50 years old.

Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center has built a mat sinking robot at their Lawrenceville facility, as seen here in December.

The work has taken on a new level of urgency over the last several decades, as global warming has led to rising water levels and accelerated erosion across the nation’s coasts and rivers.

The Corps contracted the NREC in February 2017 to create an automated system that would be faster, safer, more productive, and, of course, cheaper.

While its size has already set records, the ARMOR1 is only a prototype for what engineers envision as an even larger, water-based device that will eventually combine several different mat-sinking systems into one floating factory.

Gabriel Goldman, technical lead for the project, says the final operating version will be 180 feet long and 75 feet wide.

“When you zoom out, this thing is massive,” he says, “and it’s all floating.”

The NREC hopes to complete the prototype and have it ready for field tests on the great river in 2020, with full-scale deployment along the Mississippi expected in 2021.