Hardware Heroes: Search and Rescue Robots

Dec. 8, 2008
Imagine the following situation: You are a first responder and you arrive at the scene of a building that has collapsed.

You know the building is a warehouse that stores hazardous materials. You also know that it is the middle of the workday, so there may be people trapped inside. Would you rather spend precious, life-saving time getting your personnel in level-A suits and setting up a decontamination station, or send a robot in the building immediately upon arrival to survey the scene?

As you know, lives potentially are at stake – both victims and responders – and timing is critical. This is just one of many scenarios in which robots could help your department, jurisdiction or rescue team.

Will robots soon be tools used by urban search and rescue teams?

“I feel strongly that robots will be a valuable asset in the near future for search and rescue teams from around the world,” said Texas Task Force 1 Director Bob McKee. “They have tangible benefits that can supplement rescuers.”

The week prior to Thanksgiving, approximately 35 robot manufacturers from across the United States and international representatives from Japan, Germany and Canada tested the latest in robot technology at the world’s most realistic search and rescue training ground – Disaster City in College Station, Texas. The robots represented all formats: ground, air and water. It was the fifth-annual evaluation sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The developers tested the robots and a lot of data was collected on Monday and Tuesday,” said Billy Parker, Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Urban Search and Rescue Program manager. “The robots were then used by responders from around the country on Wednesday and Thursday, and the responders gave the manufacturers feedback to improve the robots for search and rescue. That’s the ultimate goal: To get the robots ready for a search and rescue environment.”

Standardized test methods were set up around Disaster City to test robot mobility, energy, power, sensors, manipulation and human/system interaction – to name a few. Disaster City is a 52-acre training facility designed to deliver the full array of skills and techniques needed by urban search and rescue professionals, featuring full-scale, collapsible structures that replicate community infrastructure. The site includes simulations of a strip mall, office building, industrial complex, assembly hall/theater, single-family dwelling, train derailments and three active rubble piles. It also features a small lake.

“The standard test methods are meant to be abstract and meant to be replicated anywhere,” said Adam Jacoff, NIST Robotics Research engineer. “The idea is to be able to build the test in your own shop and practice. The tests are driven by responder needs and requirements. In reducing the tests to an apparatus and method, we are conveying to the developers how to answer the problems.”

Robots already are being used by the military, police departments, fire departments and some search and rescue teams around the world to perform a variety of tasks.

“Robots are going to be an extension of the emergency responder,” McKee added. “You can never take the person out of the response. The understanding, the training and the feeling that comes from a human can’t be duplicated. These robots are going to be able to extend our skill further into rubble piles. They are going to be able to provide better surveillance and sensors to us overhead, and they are going to help responders stay safe themselves.”

To learn more about the NIST Robot Evaluation and to see pictures and video of some of the robots that were evaluated, visit http://www.teexblog.blogspot.com/.

Chuck Glenewinkel is media relations coordinator for TEEX, is a member of the Texas A&M University System and offers hands-on, customized first-responder training, homeland security exercises, technical assistance and technology transfer services impacting Texas and beyond. TEEX programs include fire services, homeland security, law enforcement, public works, safety and health, search and rescue and economic development.

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