Natural disasters are on the rise — dramatically so. Since 1970 the number of cataclysmic events worldwide has quadrupled. When it comes to disaster response, it goes to reason that more help is better than less. That’s where rescue robots come in.
Types of Rescue Robots
- Water rescue robots
- Land rescue robots
- Firefighting robots
Disaster response robots — those that fly, swim, crawl through rubble, douse fires or otherwise help first responders tackle trouble — have advanced tremendously over the last several decades. So much so that when rescue-robot trailblazer Robin Murphy was asked which rescue-robot problem she would most like to see disappear, her reply was surprisingly simple: lack of awareness. Responders, she said, need to know more about the highly effective tech tools at their disposal.
Here are 12 examples of how rescue robots are helping save lives by land, sea and air.
Water Rescue Robots
Lots of water rescues occur under dangerous conditions, but some are just too difficult for humans to perform without risking serious injury or loss of life.
A vehicle could become stranded in the fast-rising waters of a flash flood. Swift-moving rapids could sweep a distressed swimmer downstream. Ice might give way under a person's feet, plunging them into frigid water. Water rescue robots go where humans can't — and shouldn't.
These robotics companies are pushing maritime rescue robots further into uncharted waters.
1. Pilant Energy Systems
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Pliant Energy’s most notable robotics entry is the amphibious Velox. Sporting an undulating propulsion system and more closely resembling some prehistoric vertebrate than a typical rescue robot, the Velox navigates terrain using silicone fins.
Imbued with extreme maneuverability, it can swim through water, skate along ice and push through snow, all of which make it a good candidate to truck a rope or life preserver to someone who has fallen through thin ice and into dangerously cold water.
Location: Green Valley, Arizona
Hyrodnalix’s Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) is a four-foot, 26-pound remote-controlled robot that acts as a hybrid flotation buoy-lifeboat. Although its first version dates back to 2010, the robot was relatively little known until 2016, when it reportedly helped rescue hundreds of asylum seekers off the coast of Greece during the European migrant crisis. EMILY aided more than 240 refugees in its first 10 days of deployment alone.
Co-developed by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Navy's Small Business Innovation Research and Hydronalix, EMILY can cruise along at speeds of up to 23 miles per hour. Additionally, the craft can carry up to five people and features a Kevlar-reinforced hull that helps it withstand massive waves and other types of impact.
Location: Pottstown, Pennsylvania
VideoRay’s search-and-rescue/recovery system is remote-operated. The video-enabled, joystick-controlled vehicle is a versatile submersible that employs high-powered lights, multi-beam sonar imaging, GPS and metal gauges to help rescue and recovery missions. The NYC Harbor Unit has used it for cargo inspections and Bertram Yachts once turned it into a sport-fishing accessory. But it really shines in the hands of clients like the Sheriff’s Office of St. Louis County, Minnesota, whose rescue squad used the device to find a drowning victim who collapsed into an iced-over lake.
Search and Rescue Robots
The iRap robot team is the Yankees of the search and rescue robot tournament circuit. Based out of KMUT North Bangkok, the project group won top prize at the international RoboCup Rescue eight times in the competition’s 18-year existence.
Of course, the annual contest is less about cutthroat rivalry than it is about advancing the rescue robot development. Prototypes of search and rescue robots deliver supplies, toil through doors, over rock pits and up wooden “step fields” in order to gauge their dexterity, mobility and exploration prowess.
These companies have offered notable contributions to the competition and saved lives with disaster response robots.
4. Boston Dynamics
Location: Waltham, Maine
One of the world’s most famous robots, Boston Dynamics’ Atlas took its first steps as part of the semi-legendary DARPA Robotics Challenge. The competition encouraged engineers to build robotic machines that could help emergency-management crews tackle natural and man-made catastrophes. Since then, the humanoid Atlas has grown quite a bit more agile. It can even do backflips and parkour.
As part of the DARPA challenge, Atlas was engineered to perform basic but potentially life-saving tasks in dangerous conditions: flipping switches, shutting off valves, opening doors and running power equipment all thanks to design components like lightweight hydraulics and 3D-printed appendages.
5. Teledyne FLIR
Location: Wilsonville, Oregon
Teledyne FLIR specializes in drones and cameras equipped with thermal imaging and motion tracking. The SkyRanger drone is ideal for search and rescue, allowing for launch within just a few minutes after arriving on the scene with first responders. The drone is equipped with both infrared and daylight cameras to detect humans in rough terrain and hidden locations. The company also offers hand-held thermal imaging cameras that allow rescue teams to stream photos and videos of a search directly to their command center.
6. DEEP Robotics
Location: Hangzhou, Zhejiang
DEEP Robotics has developed a quadruped called Jueying X20. The dog-like robot can traverse rough terrain in extreme weather conditions, thanks to its capabilities like autonomous navigation, ability to climb a 35-degree slope and its 187-pound working load. With the ability to carry equipment like oxygen tanks the robot is the ideal assistant in rescue operations.
Earthquake and Fire Robots
Rescue robots are often the difference between life and death. Response teams are increasingly in agreement. Roboticists have developed vine- and snake-like helpers to search through otherwise non-navigable aftermaths of earthquakes, as well as more conventionally ambulatory bots like the autonomous Zebro, which work together via a “swarming algorithm.” Firefighting robots are even more widespread. The Tokyo Fire Department, for instance, counts a dozen different types of bots among its ranks.
Below are a few companies and institutions that use robots to quell fires and mitigate quake harm.
7. Howe and Howe Technologies
Location: Waterboro, Maine
Howe & Howe is responsible for two of the most popular firefighting robots in the field: the Thermite RS1 and RS3. Both are powered by 24-horsepower diesel engines, controlled remotely, run on industrial-grade tank treads and can climb slopes up to 70 degrees. Capable of blasting out up to 2500 gallons of water and foam per minute, the robots are specifically designed to tackle major industrial fires like oil refinery blazes, HAZMAT fires, and BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions), among many other types.
8. Shark Robotics
Location: Fully Remote
The fire that devastated France's Notre-Dame Cathedral in 2019 was a monumental loss in many ways. But it could have been far worse if not for Shark Robotics’ Colossus. Armed with its WALL-E-like treads and the power to blast 660 gallons of water per minute, the 1,100-pound fireproof robot was summoned by the Paris Fire Brigade when conditions proved too treacherous for firefighters. The brigade’s commander, Jean-Claude Gallet, would later say that Colossus had saved the lives of his crew.
Aside from extinguishing fire, the joystick-controlled Colossus can also haul firefighting equipment, transport wounded victims and trigger its 360-degree, high-definition thermal camera to assess a scene.
9. Carnegie Mellon University
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Like many of its rescue-robot brethren, the Snakebot — which was developed by researchers at CMU — holds promise for a variety of fields. It has so far aided archeological digs and helped inspect nuclear power plants. But head developer Howie Choset intends it mostly as a life-saving tool.
Choset’s remote-controlled bot sports more than a dozen joints, allowing it to crawl and climb through debris that first responders and animal assistants can't navigate. While climbing a pole, for instance, it can autonomously transition its movement based on changes in the pole’s radius. A “head”-mounted camera, LED lights and distance-measuring laser technology allow rescue personnel to shepherd the snake through rubble while it transmits video back to a remote crew.
Aerial Rescue Robots
Drones are the Zelig of advanced flight tech, popping up in the middle of everything from cocktail serving to grocery delivery to geopolitical escalation. They’re also near the heart of most airborne search-and-rescue and disaster prevention efforts.
Whether flying solo or tethering to other devices, drones and unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) tend to share a few common characteristics: laser and/or radar scanners for navigation, video cameras to record and broadcast details back to remote crews and thermal imaging to help spot survivors.
10. Lockheed Martin
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
A giant among defense contractors, Lockheed Martin is known for developing fighter jets like its F-35. The arms behemoth has also spent decades developing a fleet of autonomous unmanned systems, including submarine trackers and aerial reconnaissance drones.
There’s also the K-MAX, which LM designed to deliver supplies, humanitarian aid and fuel to hard-to-reach locations. With a 6,000-pound cargo capacity, the aircraft is a natural to help the annual wildfire threat, as the contractor demonstrated a few years ago.
11. Wyss Institute at Harvard University
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
The Wyss Institute at Harvard is developing small aerial drones coined “RoboBees.” The latest version of RoboBees can fly, dive and swim and propel out of water. Developers hope that the robotics drones would serve a variety of use cases ranging from environmental monitoring and biological studies to search and rescue. The robot’s wings flap at 220 to 300 hertz in air and nine to 13 hertz in water, which allow the bee to move freely through air and water.
12. Ripper Corporation
Location: South Brisbane, Australia
Ripper’s UAVs have been protecting coasts and beaches since 2016. The drone company partnered with the University of Technology in Sydney to develop an artificial intelligence system that can detect sharks and other marine threats in real time. Drones equipped with this technology can live-stream data and video to control centers as well as drop sea-marker dye trackers to monitor animals, people or objects in the water.