x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Robot recruits deployed on the front line

Major research efforts are being made into the development of unmanned robotic systems, specifically geared toward rescue operations.

On the surface, the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City and the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995, may have seemed like two completely unrelated disasters.

But they shared at least one similarity: both sites inspired huge research efforts into the development of unmanned robotic systems, specifically geared toward rescue operations.

There have been about 35 documented uses of robots that have taken to the land, sea or air since that time in rescue operations around the world.

The first occurred after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York City, according to Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University, as well as the school's director of its centre for robot-assisted search and rescue.

During the 2004 and 2005 US hurricane seasons, which unleashed vast amounts of destruction via Hurricane Katrina in parts of the country, the focus of these robots shifted from being used on the ground and into the air.

"We had been called in to help Louisiana and New Orleans but by the time we got there the city was cordoned off and there was no way to get to them," says Ms Murphy. "We fell back in the state of Florida, to help with the search in Mississippi."

The scene was chaotic, to say the least. "Power lines are down - you have to drive over those. You've got trees in the way," says Ms Murphy.

"We were tasked to use small UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] to help with routes and find people in trouble."

Unmanned vehicles were deployed to help to assess damage and assist relief workers following the collapse of an archives building in Germany and after an earthquake in Italy. Some have been used for domestic protection purposes.

The company iRobot, for one, recently said it won US$7.2 million in contracts to provide some of its robotic technology and equipment to Brazil for the forthcoming Fifa World Cup next year and other events to help in case of emergencies.

It has also been behind the delivery of more than 5,000 robots for various military and civil defence forces around the world, as well as the technology that was used to help officials during the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon.

Shortly after the fatal blasts in Boston, local police officers in Watertown, Massachusetts, cornered both suspected terrorists and deployed a vehicle nobody was actually driving.

The terrorists thought the vehicle really had police officers in it, according to a report from WinterGreen Research.

Later, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - one of the alleged terrorists - was hiding under a tarpaulin in a boat, police officers employed a robotic arm to remove part of the covering, revealing where the man was hiding.

"They put the robot in to negotiate and made him lift his shirt up to see if he had a bomb on or not," says Susan Eustis, the president of WinterGreen Research.

"Who wanted to get into that boat with the kid until they found out if it was wired or not?" In the past, state police departments in the US deployed these kinds of vehicles. But more local departments are looking to Watertown and beginning to request them as well, rather than waiting for state officials to be called in for back up.

These kinds of unmanned vehicles, Ms Eustis says, are expected to be used much more in the future in both search and rescue operations, as well as domestic terrorist situations and other potential disasters, including nuclear meltdowns - such as the one in Japan in 2011 - and building collapses.

Over the years, the technology harnessed by these robots has evolved to include sharper-shooting cameras with clearer focus - and more focal length - as well as more sophisticated sensors capable of scanning for different chemicals and explosive devices.

They have also become much smaller.

One of the unmanned aerial vehicles Ms Murphy's team used during hurricane rescue efforts looked like a plane, while the other mimicked the design of a helicopter.

Each could get into the sky to provide a view of destruction in rural areas, and possible safe paths for travel. Still, they were small enough that they could be assembled in the field and measured, at most, about 180cm in wing-span in the case of the plane.

"Both of them fit into a small suitcase," says Ms Murphy.

Embassies are showing more interest in these kinds of small devices for robotic defence reasons, says Ms Eustis, and some countries are conducting trials by seeing how quickly a drone might be able to fly from a ship parked just offshore to a local particular building.

"It's going to become a very routine part of delivering security in a local environment," says Ms Eustis.

Whether or not everyone agrees that is a positive movement, however, remains another debate.