|Robots can reach places inaccessible to humans / Photo Credit: SvetaZi (via Shutterstock)|
Helena Pozniak of Engineering and Technology (E&T), an award-winning website for engineers, reported that Dr. Ivana Kruiff-Korbayova, head of the talking robots group at DFKI, the German Research Center of AI, was called at short notice to deploy her experimental robot technology to aid in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the Italian mountain town of Amatrice in 2016. Dr. Kruiff-Korbayova and her fellow researchers worked with Italian firefighters seven days after the earthquake “when hope of finding any more survivors had gone,” with emergency services trying to find out which structures were safe.
Two medieval churches were still standing, and the team working on the EU-backed TRADR project (for robot-assisted disaster response) traveled to lend their assistance. It was not easy for robots to get in, but the team’s robots managed to cross rubble to get inside the church out of sight of their operator. The machines roamed around the interior, taking pictures to help the team generate 3D models of the existing buildings. Drones were also deployed to complemented the images. Dr. Kruiff-Korbayova stated, “We’d used multiple robots simultaneously but never in such tight team collaboration – it was an amazing success.” Private fire consultant Andy Elliott said you need accurate risk assessments as damaged structures are dangerous places.
However, getting robots into a disaster zone is challenging considering the obstacles they need to face. Drones are often used by emergency services, but they struggle to fly in tight spaces and have limited carrying capacities and battery life. Dr. Emma Rushforth, director of Warwick Mobile Robotics at the University of Warwick, explained that robot snakes can be deployed in narrow spaces but they are too difficult to create. Yes, robots can reach places inaccessible to humans. However, they’re no match for rescue dogs, noted Hampshire Fire and Rescue dog handler Robin Furniss. He added, “Fire brigades have massive technology backing them up, but dogs are still the first preferred call.”
Having witnessed rescue operations, head of the biorobotics laboratory at Switzerland’s EPFL and expert in computational neuroscience and machine learning Professor Auke Ijspeert and his colleagues are optimistic, but realistic. He said robots will help the rescue community, “but they will never replace them.”