Innovations in Rescue Robots

A new generation of robots is being developed, though, with strikingly different forms that could quite literally be the difference between life and death in search and rescue operations. Frost & Sullivan has identified several projects that could disrupt disaster response.

Robots designed to search for people trapped beneath collapsed buildings so that survivors can be rescued or bodies can be recovered received their baptism by fire after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Many of those early robots were damaged or became immobilized by the rubble.

With many design improvements since then, rescue robots have been used to successfully locate people trapped beneath rubble or in underground pipelines after an earthquake, or in collapsed mines where neither human nor canine searchers can enter. Still, Frost & Sullivan analysts found that that the robots often experience the same problem that they did on 9/11: they are too bulky to maneuver through cramped spaces filled with debris.

A new generation of robots is being developed, though, with strikingly different forms that could quite literally be the difference between life and death in search and rescue operations. Frost & Sullivan has identified several projects that could disrupt disaster response.

Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.

Stanford engineers, with the support of the National Science Foundation, are developing a cylindrical robot that is made of a soft, inexpensive plastic that grows in a desired direction with the use of a pressurized medium, such as compressed air. A human operator can remotely extend a vine-like tendril with a camera at its tip to view images of spaces too tight for the robot to enter. The delicate procedure happens without any movement of the robot’s body.

 A prototype robot has successfully traversed flypaper, glue, nails and ice to deliver a carbon dioxide sensor that is used to detect the breathing of trapped survivors. The inventors designed the robot to be flexible enough to navigate under a door space one-tenth of its normal 1- to 3- inch diameter. When equipped with a cable, it is strong enough to pull a 220-pound crate.

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

A university team used a bio-inspired approach to develop a “snakebot” rescue robot. The serpentine mechanism consists of 16 modules connected by half-joints, with a video camera and lights on the robot’s head. The entire snakebot measures 2 inches in diameter and 37 inches in length, and is tethered to a cable that provides power and control.

The snakebot has 16 degrees of freedom so that it can assume multiple configurations and mimic a snake’s undulations or roll to reach otherwise-inaccessible spots. Its capabilities were demonstrated after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Mexico City on Sept. 19, 2017. The snakebot made two passes through the rubble of collapsed buildings and provided video feed to rescue workers. Although it found no survivors, Mexican Red Cross workers told the American inventors they would like to have such a tool in their inventory. Indeed, the snakebot performed so well that the mechanism was named Ground Rescue Robot of the Year by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) on April 14 as part of National Robotics Week. CRASAR is an independent, nonprofit research group that encourages emergency management agencies to use experimental robotics and unmanned systems during crisis operations around the world.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Snakes inspired Carnegie Mellon’s rescue robot; the humble cockroach was the muse of scientists who designed the Sprawl-Tuned Autonomous Robot (STAR). The developers equipped STAR prototypes with six legs whose wheels are angled away from the body so that they can move around many types of obstacles and, like real cockroaches, flatten themselves in order to slide under narrow openings.

An improvement over live cockroaches (besides not infesting apartments and offices) is that when a STAR is knocked onto its back, it will invert its wheels and continue to move. Cameras and lights can be mounted on an attachment for search and rescue operations. Different versions of the STAR can walk horizontally and operate outdoors; the team is working to make them more intelligent so they can operate autonomously. The scientists have patented the designs and are actively seeking partners to commercialize them.

The Road Ahead

Because search and rescue operations are in the public safety domain, Frost & Sullivan expects governmental influence and funding to be crucial to further robotics innovations. An example is the Long-Term Human-Robot Teaming for Disaster Response (TRADR) program, a European Commission-funded research project. TRADR developed science and technology for human-robot teams to conduct urban search and rescue in disaster response efforts that could last for weeks. Multinational collaboration will increase the chances for a technology’s success: findings from this project were presented in Chicago in March at a workshop during HRI 2018, the annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction that attracts corporate and academic researchers from around the world.

There are also signs that next-generation robots can benefit humanity in other ways. For example, the Ben-Gurion University robotics laboratory is adapting its diminutive and modular STAR machines for space travel, surgery and agriculture.

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