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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It’s hard to comprehend the bravery required for a person to run into a burning building rather than flee from it. But in the near future, first responders to harrowing disasters and emergency situations aren’t likely to even know what bravery is. Instead, they’ll be emotionless robots that only exist to accomplish the task at hand, helping police, firefighters and homeland security personnel do an even better job of protecting people and saving lives.

While the modern field of robotics has benefited from many bursts of innovation since the late 1950s, the last decade has been its renaissance. Mankind’s largest push to develop robots arguably began in the days immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when shoebox-size “PackBots” made by iRobot Corporation (best known for its semi-autonomous Roomba vacuum cleaner) were used to ensure the stability of rubble piles before first responders started their search for survivors at New York’s World Trade Center site.

Soon thereafter, robots were deployed into the Middle East and Afghanistan along with American troops, where unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) were enlisted to defuse and detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One memorable example of the critical role often played by UGVs is the HD-1 robot (made by Remotec, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman), featured in the opening sequence of the 2008 Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” where it was shown helping ground troops detonate an IED.

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To date, the U.S. Army has purchased more than 7,000 such robots from private companies, a large portion of which have been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least 750 have been rendered useless by bomb blasts or otherwise lost in combat, undoubtedly saving thousands of human lives in the act.

From war zones to our own home towns, robots are coming to our aid

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both winding down, the focus of many robot researchers, developers and manufacturers has shifted toward first response far away from the frontline, in efforts to protect those here in the U.S. Anti-terror bomb squads are one obvious customer base, as many of these machines are designed for explosive ordinance disposal (EOD). Remotec’s line of Andros robots, which can climb stairs and can be outfitted with a number of tools, are used by 90 percent of bomb squads across the U.S., says Mark Kauchak, the company's director of sales and customer support.

Many different kinds of robots can help detonate or defuse bombs. Typically, they are controlled remotely and outfitted with multiple cameras and arm-like devices with grippers to lift and maneuver explosives. Some models can cut wires, or are outfitted with advanced sensors and chemical detectors to sniff out chemical and biological agents. Remotec's F6B, the company's best-selling bot, can also wield a shotgun to blast open doors, and can use other firearms to disable or detonate bombs, Kauchak says.

Bomb-detecting robots are even used at airports and by border patrols and port security personnel to thwart domestic terror threats. For example, a Boston-area company called Black-I Robotics built the LandShark Series D, a movable robotic platform powered by heavy-duty car batteries and electric hybrid motors that can be easily outfitted with an array of customized robotic capabilities such as sonar, minesweeping and explosives detection. The Massachusetts State Police bomb squad at Logan International Airport currently uses one such unit to screen for explosives. The company's founder, Brian Hart, was inspired to build the device after his son, Army Pvt. First Class John Hart, died in an ambush in Iraq at the age of 20. Telerob, based in Ostfildern, Germany, specializes in robots used to destroy or disarm bombs, as well.

Robots like these can also serve as eyes and ears in dangerous situations, to help find survivors of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. “Almost any emergency situation you can imagine gets better with a robot,” says Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research in Lexington, MA. Her firm’s market study on first responder robots suggests that the market for these types of robots is likely to more than triple in size from $440.4 million in 2011 to $1.6 billion by 2018.

Semi-autonomous rescue robots are enhancing first responder services