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SAR Blog: Look for the robots, they're coming to the rescue

Posted on 26th November 2016 at 15:33pm

“Look for the robots, because robots are coming to the rescue,” said Dr Robin Murphy, Director for the Texas based Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) in her enlightening TED Talk. It is entirely possible that in the near future you could be rescued by a robot or at the very least it will assist in locating you. The potential application for robot assisted search and rescue seems unlimited.

Rescue robots are ideally suited to working in harsh conditions and undertaking tasks that can’t safely be done by humans, such as scouring rubble in unstable disaster zones and working in hazardous or irradiated environments. Murphy estimates that: “Speeding up an emergency response by one day through the use of autonomous robots and unmanned machines can reduce the recovery time by almost three years.”

We’ve come a long way in the 15 years since the first recorded use of robot assisted search and rescue at Ground Zero in September 2001. This was highlighted on November 8, 2016 in a dazzling display of technology from Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, when they demonstrated how optionally-piloted helicopters and four different Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could be tasked to work together to fight a small fire and find and rescue a lost camper at Griffiss International Airport in New York. Dan Spoor, Vice President of Unmanned Systems said that Lockheed Martin’s: “Pioneering advances in autonomous and unmanned technologies will lead to improved safety and efficiency for humanitarian aid, first response and other civil, commercial and military operations in the air, on land and undersea.” (See video below).

UAV’s are being put to good use in alpine terrain as well. Robodrone Kingfisher is currently being used by the Czech Mountain Rescue Service to detect avalanche survivors using visual search with onboard cameras and PIEPS avalanche beacon detection, as shown in the video below.

Researchers at the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Zurich have come up with a way to enable quadcopters to recognise and follow forest trails using artificial intelligence algorithms (see below). This could prove to be exceptionally useful to locate and assist lost and injured hikers.

Robotic lifeguards are increasingly being deployed at beaches around the world. In Australia, the Little Ripper Life Saver currently being trialled in Queensland, is a UAV that can be fitted with a pod and can be dropped to swimmer in distress. The automatically inflating You Little Beauty rescue marine pods contain a Shark Shield deterrent device, light and sea anchor, and are strong enough to hold up to four people. It also transmits a gps position to the Little Ripper to assist lifesavers. Land and snow ULB pods can also be fitted to the Little Ripper, as demonstrated below.

Using an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) has proven effective in preventing migrant drownings in the Mediterranean. The Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) USV (pictured below) is a remote controlled lifeguard assistant buoy with a cruising speed of 22 mph. The buoy can be guided to those in need and hold up to five people. They can then be picked up or the operator can retract the tether and bring it back to shore.

EMILY was deployed to Greece in January 2016 in a Roboticists Without Borders CRASAR initiative and is credited with saving more than two dozen lives. The Hellenic Coast Guard and Hellenic Red Cross currently have two EMILYs. It can also be used in conjunction with a Fotokite tethered quadcopter to take aerial photographs and giver operator’s better situational awareness, as illustrated in the following video. 

Integration of unmanned system is an area of focus across the global research community. The Integrated Components for Assisted Rescue and Unmanned Search operations, or ICARUS, project funded by the European Commission is: “Developing a toolbox of integrated components for unmanned Search and Rescue.” Focussing on urban and maritime search and rescue the ICARUS team has developed and demonstrated the integration of Large Unmanned Ground Vehicles (LUGVs), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to support search and rescue operations. Recently ICARUS project partner ETH Zurich used the AtlanticSolar UAV to complete a fully autonomous 26 hour solar-powered perpetual SAR flight carrying a small payload to detect victims from the air during both day and night. It is thought that this capability will be helpful in assisting SAR operations in the Mediterranean. 

While the use of unmanned systems and robots for search and rescue can only improve operational safety and efficiency what are some of the future ethical considerations? A series of workshops conducted with rescue workers in the context of the Long-term Human-Robot Teaming for Robot-Assisted Disaster Response (TRADR) project identified some key ethical concerns and dilemmas using autonomous robots in SAR. These surrounded safety risks such as malfunction or other inappropriate behaviour; decreased performance in victim contact; loss of privacy; responsibility assignment problems; and false expectations about robot capabilities.

Do we trust robots to rescue us from an emergency situation? It was found that during a mock building fire test run by Georgia Institute of Technology people blindly followed instructions from an ‘Emergency Guide Robot’ even when the robot made obvious errors. This really highlights the danger of overtrust and having false expectations of robot capabilities as identified by the TRADR project.

How close are we to a rescue robots converging en masse to an incident? Swarms of relatively cheap roach micro-bots could be deployed over large search areas in future with work being undertaken at the University of California, Berkeley, Biomimetic Millisystems Lab (RObotic Autonomous Crawling Hexapod) projects shown in the video below. These relatively cheap micro-bots could be produced quickly to assist in a SAR where their small stature may be a major advantage. 

MIT researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab (CSAIL) recently managed to print a functioning hexapod robot using a 3D inkjet printer in 22 hours. In future search teams could turn up to an incident with a 3D printer and manufacture robot assistance as required. This would be an incredible capability to have in any mission co-ordinator's bag of tricks.

So, look for the robots, they’re coming to a rescue near you.

Written by Martin Boyle

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