12 ways rescue robots save the day during disasters and emergencies
Natural disasters are on the rise — dramatically so. Since 1970, according to the United Nations, the number of cataclysmic events worldwide has quadrupled. When it comes to disaster response, then, it goes to reason that more help is better than less.
Increasingly, that means robotics to the rescue.
Rescue 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, in fact, that when rescue-robot trailblazer Robin Murphy was recently 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 a dozen 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.
Enter: water rescue robots. They go where humans can't — and shouldn't.
These companies are pushing maritime rescue robotics further into uncharted waters.
Location: Green Valley, Ariz.
How it's using rescue robots: Hyrodnalix’s Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) is a four-foot, 25-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. According to PRI, 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 22 mph thanks to its 22-volt battery powered engine. 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.
Up next? Assisted by the National Science Foundation, Texas A&M researchers are trying to make EMILY more autonomous though the use of drone tethering and thermal sensory technology. Their aim is to reduce human error.
Location: Pottstown, Pa.
How it's using rescue robots: Like EMILY, VideoRay’s search-and-rescue/recovery system is remote-operated. (Autonomous underwater vehicles — aka AUVs — are increasingly common in commercial industries, like oil and gas, but rescue bots still necessitate a human presence, for obvious reasons.)
The video-enabled, joystick-controlled vehicle is a versatile little 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, Minn., whose rescue squad has long used the device. Here, they recount a situation in which a snow groomer collapsed into an iced-over lake and the remote-operated vehicle (ROV) led divers to the drowning victim.
Pliant Energy Systems
How it's using rescue robots: 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.
With its mollusk-y mien, Velox is also a good example of the biomimicry that's so common in rescue-robot development. (See the snakebot below.)
Urban Search & Rescue Robots
The iRap robot team is the Yankees of the 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 cause, or more specifically, measuring year-over-year progress within the field. Prototypes of urban-search-and-rescue robots deliver supplies, toil through doors, over rock pits and up wooden “step fields” (think a distant relative to Q*bert’s cube pyramid) in order to gauge their dexterity, mobility and exploration prowess.
Like so much in the robot-rescue field, the competition was born in response to tragedy — specifically, from the Japanese government’s decision to promote research in large-scale urban disaster relief following the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995.
Check out a few others who’ve made notable contributions, including on the front lines of major disasters.
Location: Nanaimo, B.C., and Deer Park, Texas
How it's using rescue robots: Acquired by Eddyfi Technologies early this year, Inuktun no longer focuses primarily on creating inspection robots for search and rescue operations. Still, its standout efforts following two of the most devastating tragedies in American history merit mention.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, New York City’s Department of Design and Construction used Inuktun’s Delta robot (then known as VGTV, for Variable Geometry Tracked Vehicle) for important inspections — like this mission to ensure that the World Trade complex’s slurry walls would still protect it from flooding. Four years later, Florida Task Force 3 used the camera-enabled crawlers — which can cover up to 90 feet per minute — to look for survivors in buildings that were too unstable for human searches in Biloxi, Miss.
Location: Waltham, Mass.
How it's using rescue robots: One of the world’s most famous robots, humanitarian or otherwise, 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, running power equipment.
Aside from its pronounced (some say creepy) human-like appearance, Atlas is notable for several unique design components, such lightweight hydraulics and 3D-printed appendages. It can also absorb a remarkable amount of abuse.
Location: Bedford, Mass.
How it's using rescue robots: As Wired noted in 2018, post-meltdown Fukushima served for years as both rehearsal space and mainstage for robot researchers looking to ply their wares in nuclear-emergency assessment and cleanup. That was true in the immediate aftermath, too, when iRobot — not to be confused with I, Robot — brought in a pair of PackBots to help assess the damage.
The tele-operated, tread-footed duo “proved invaluable during early efforts to ascertain the full extent of the wreckage inside the [reactor] units, which suffered huge structural damage as a result of hydrogen explosions,” the Japan Times wrote nearly a year after the tragedy.
iRobot is more famous nowadays as the inventor of the Roomba. And PackBots, which were also deployed to scour through rubble in the wake of 9/11, have since morphed into more military-centric applications such as bomb “sniffing,” sniper detection and IED disposal. But the PackBots remain both useful emergency tools and hugely influential stepping stones in the history of rescue robots.
Earthquake and Fire Robots
“We believe that robots being the difference between life and death, it’s now getting unethical not to use them,” Dr. Robin Murphy, a rescue-robot trailblazer and founder of disaster robotics advocacy group Roboticists Without Borders, told NBC News.
Response teams are increasingly in agreement. Roboticists have developed vine- and snake-like helpers to search through otherwise non-navigable aftermath 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.
Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
How it's using rescue robots: 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, helped inspect nuclear power plants and gotten Jimmy Fallon slightly hot and bothered with a late-night leg crawl. But head developer Howie Choset, something of a rockstar in the field of rescue robots, intends it mostly as 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. (In 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.
The snakebot slithered into action most famously after deadly earthquakes in Mexico a couple of years ago. While no survivors were located, the bot freed up overextended rescue workers and insights from the trip informed subsequent upgrades.
Location: La Rochelle, France
How it's using rescue robots: The fire that devastated France's Notre-Dame Cathedral earlier this year was a monumental loss in many ways. But it could have been far worse if not for 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 Paris Fire Brigade commander Jean-Claude Gallet when conditions proved too treacherous for his firefighters. 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, according to Shark Robotics. Shark’s full family of robots includes a host of operational-support cousins designed to go where humans cannot or should not, including a military transport aide called Barakuda and a mobile robotic version of traffic spikes named Bulkhead.
Howe & Howe Technologies
Location: Waterboro, Maine
How it's using rescue robots: Howe & Howe is responsible for two of the most popular firefighting robots in the field today: the Thermite RS1-T3 and RS2-T2. Both are powered by 25-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 workhorses 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.
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.
Like any technology, the more UAVs advance, the more challenges emerge. Researchers are now focused on making sure drones don’t self-overwhelm with too much data. They’re also applying machine learning to make UAVs better at adapting to a situational specifics. For example, as Nicole Abaid, of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, told Scientific American, “someone with dementia, when they're lost, will behave significantly differently than like a child or a despondent person.”
How it's using rescue robots: Some 150 people are killed every year by avalanches, most of them skiers and other winter sportspeople. One of the most reliable countermeasures that ski patrols have in their prevention toolkit is controlled avalanches, which are triggered using explosives when a mountain is empty. But controlled avalanches pose their own threats, exemplified when two ski patrollers were killed in France in January when they were unable to evacuate before the explosives blew.
One forward-looking fix comes from startup Mountain Drones, which built a drone that can perform targeted avalanche detonations from the air. One problem the solution is a bit too forward-looking, as U.S. law prohibits civilians from flying weaponized drones. But the technology is ready for action just as soon as regulators catch up.
Location: Wimberley, Texas
How it's using rescue robots: Co-founded by former Air Force medic and “search and rescue drone pioneer” Gene Robinson, Drone Pilot offers federally licensed drone certification classes, plus a wide array of drone services that include crime scene and search assistance. The company's drones have been part of many high-profile searches, including the 2008 hunt for Casey Anthony’s daughter. And its non-profit wing, Remote Pilot Search Services, has helped families and organizations look for lost loved ones at no cost.
"When we made our first find, the family was just so grateful,” Robinson told the Austin Chronicle. “What we were able to do was so important to them and it completely changed my perspective. I knew it was imperative for me to use this technology for good."
Location: Bethesda, Md.
How it's using rescue robots: A giant among defense contractors, Lockheed Martin is known for developing outsize firepower like that of its F-35, the most expensive fighter jet ever made. 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. One of K-MAX’s UAV siblings, the Indago drone, is being used in Australia to help battle blazes.
Images via Shutterstock, social media and company websites.