Robots to the Rescue

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Robots to the Rescue

When disaster strikes and danger looms, the heroes that burst onto the scene to save the day might not even be human.

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When a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the reactor at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March of 2011, iRobot Packbots withstood deadly levels of radiation to successfully enter reactor buildings and provide “the first observations inside the damaged reactors, map radiation levels, and assist with the clean-up efforts,” says Tom Phelps, iRobot's director of robot products for North America.

Companies in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Korea also make similar robots for first responders in such dire situations. Among these is the British company QinetiQ, based in Farnborough, which makes robots for HAZMAT and search-and-rescue, and the Talon family of robots that helped sift through rubble after 9/11 at the World Trade Center site. Japanese-made robots initially failed to help at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant because they were vulnerable to radiation. But a caterpillar-shaped, radiation-tolerant robot called Quince (developed by scientists at Japan’s Chiba Institute of Technology) was equipped with cameras, thermometers, hygrometers and dust collectors, and eventually performed several missions there. 

Increasingly, rescue robots are able to operate autonomously without direct control by humans. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Georgia Tech, among others, are working to create robots that can communicate with each other and decide how best to explore and to concentrate their efforts. These robots can already create maps of a building’s interior using lasers, without any human input. Such capabilities can be hugely useful in the event of a fire, for example, where on-the-ground information can give firefighters a better idea of how to best tackle the blaze.

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Firefighters in South Korea are already experimenting with the Hoya firefighting robot, which can explore a blazing building to search for people, measure gas levels and air temperatures, and transmit that data back to its human handlers, while withstanding temperatures up to 320˚ F. (The Hoya is rugged enough to provide invaluable reconnaissance without putting firefighters at risk, but will not remain operational in the direct 400˚-800˚ F heat of a typical structural fire.) Similarly, Waterboro, Maine-based Howe and Howe Technologies makes a remote-controlled robot called the Thermite that can actually fight fires by dousing flames with up to 600 gallons of water per minute from a multi-directional nozzle—that’s roughly three times the volume produced by a fire truck’s traditional “crosslay” hose.

Remotec's newest UGV, the Titus, has several semi-autonomous functions, like climbing stairs without continued commands. And several iRobot products (like the five-pound FirstLook) are light enough to literally be thrown inside confined or inaccessible areas, and can turn over in place to right themselves and return to the spot from which they were thrown if they lose contact with their human counterparts.

On land, under water, or in the air, robots can lend a helping hand

Autonomy can be powerful, but it has its limitations. “A lot of people think you can turn on a robot and it'll do its own thing,” Kauchak says. That's fine if you want it to clean your carpet, but not if you want it to disarm a bomb or take out a bad guy. “When we are dealing with explosives or people in hostage situations, you don't want to take the human out of that loop.”

Another area of research could link humans and first responder robots. A computer system being developed by University of Dayton researcher Vijayan Asari uses a small robot with a camera to recognize people's faces and determine whether they are friend or foe based on a preset database. It then analyzes facial features and gestures to assess if the person is in pain, with the end goal of bringing wounded soldiers or survivors to the nearest medical facility. The same robot could be modified, though, to assess a person’s behavior and determine their identity, Asari says. “This application could be extended to any emergency environment where we can send the robot inside to automatically find individuals.”

Most first responder bots are ground-based, but some can actually fly. Several police departments around the country already use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in hostage and other emergency scenarios. These so-called drones are likely to be used more and more by law enforcement and homeland security, says WinterGreen Research’s Eustis.

In February 2012, Congress enacted a law that provides funding for a nationwide broadband network—First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet—that will help police, firefighters, emergency medical professionals and others streamline communications during disasters and perform their jobs at a higher, and safer, level. This network “can be used to communicate with robots used in emergency situations” and should help encourage this market segment, Eustis says.