Superbots Save The Day


Bot vehicle

Imagine you’re trapped in the  wreckage of a collapsed building.

Unable to move underneath the debris, you’re forced to wait, hoping a first  responder will soon pull you from the rubble. Finally, something peeks  through the tangle of concrete and steel, and you ind yourself face-to-face  with … a robot?

We have to contend with our  fair share of disasters on our little  blue planet. These calamities can  range from extreme weather events  like hurricanes to other naturally  occurring phenomena such as  earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Sometimes, as with explosions  and bombings, the destruction  is intentional — whereas, in the  case of nuclear accidents, mining  disasters and most wildfires, it’s  simply the unfortunate side efect  of human activities. Regardless of  the cause, for centuries, humans  have set out on search-and-rescue  missions to save those let in a  disaster’s wake.

But in the past few decades,  robots have taken an increasingly  active role in these rescue efforts.  Bots have battled their way through  major events like the World Trade  Center attacks, hurricanes Katrina  and Harvey, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the eruption of  Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

These mechanical saviours can  range from ground to marine  to aerial vehicles — including  drones that don’t just rummage  through rubble for survivors,  but provide reconnaissance from  above. Beyond that, roboticists  across the globe are building new,  inventive types of rescue robots.  Many projects still in development  draw inspiration from the animal  kingdom, mimicking designs  that nature has perfected to make  machines that can move through  harsh environments, from droids  that resemble snakes and cockroaches to a leet of autonomous  bees. And while many are still years  away from being used in actual  crises, they point toward a future  in which — contrary to much of  science action, where bots bring  death and destruction — it’s the  robots that come to our rescue.


Pioneers in disaster robotics wanted to build bots that could go where human rescuers could not. Here, first responders wade through the rubble in the  aftermath of the 2017 Mexico City earthquake.


Scientists began suggesting the idea  of using robots for search-and-rescue  operations in the 1980s. hey were  driven by the prospect of bots that could  operate in a range of environments, from  underground tunnels to volcanic craters  to the twisted maze of concrete created  when buildings collapse. In short, they  wanted robots that could go to places  that are unreachable — or simply too  dangerous — for human rescuers. “hat  just seemed to be a go-to application in  robotics,” says roboticist Robin Murphy,  director of the Humanitarian Robotics  and AI Laboratory at Texas A&M  University. But these ideas didn’t gain  much traction at the  time, partly because  robots weren’t  advanced enough  yet to do the tasks  being proposed.

hen, in 1995, at  opposite ends of the  globe, two major events made scientists  take the promise of disaster robotics  much more seriously: the Oklahoma  City bombing and the Hanshin-awaji  earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

He former reduced a significant chunk of the Alfred  P. Murray Federal Building to rubble and  killed 168 people. he latter was among  the worst quakes in Japan’s history, killing  an estimated 6,400 and damaging or  destroying nearly 400,000 buildings.  In both instances, says Murphy, the  difficulty of digging through collapsed  buildings made it nearly impossible to  reach those coined within. “here were  most likely survivors trapped within the  deep recesses,” she says. “And you just  couldn’t get to them in time.” Meanwhile, roboticists across the  world were working to make more  agile robots that could operate in  extreme environments. With those two  catastrophes as catalysts, the notion  of search-and-rescue robotics shited  from an abstract idea into the domain  of applied research. In the U.S., those.

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