Rescue Robots: Can Technology Save Lives?

Rescue Robots: Can Technology Save Lives?

Significant advances in AI and robotics have revolutionized disaster relief, salvage, and search and rescue operations. Including aerial, terrestrial and maritime robotic systems, it is currently possible to deploy drones and robots to collect data, guide rescuers, deliver essential supplies, and rapidly identify unsafe areas.

But what about more advanced functions like doing equipment repairs or finding trapped people? The two rescue robots below are initial prototypes seeking to accomplish those types of first responder tasks in the future.

Honda’s Newest Disaster Response Robot

Following the Fukushima crisis in Japan, many people expected robots to respond the disaster. Honda, known by humanoid robot ASIMO, were developing the disaster response robot at that time.

Specs of Honda’s E2-DR

The Honda E2-DR is built using an Intel Core-i7 CPU, a discrete GPU, and DC-DC converters.

At 187 pounds, 5 ½ feet tall, and less than 10 inches thick, the robot uses a 1000-Wh lithium-ion battery that provides a 90-minute operating time. In addition to its narrow dimensions allowing the ability for it to travel through tight passageways, its joints have wide mobility with a total of 33 degrees of freedom for arms, legs, torso, hands, and head.

Although optical fibers have a reputation for being poor quality, they are eight times smaller than traditional communication cables. Having tested the 0.5mm optical cables with one million twists and bends, the team found no problems and so they used the optical cables for communication to keep the weight and size to a minimum.

The robot is designed to have resistance to temperature, dust, and water. This presented challenges for keeping the internal CPU cool and regulating its temperature against external environments and internal heat generation. Withstanding external temperatures between 14 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it uses a segregated cooling structure that combines a series of air ducts that are placed throughout the body to transfer heat out using internal fans. Additionally, heat-producing hardware is placed directly adjacent to the ducts, using thermal conducting sheets to draw the heat into the duct.

The robot differs from humans in how it uses its hands. Whereas humans use our hands for most tasks, the robot’s hand use is focused solely on stabilization and grasping. Its hands do not need to be dextrous because it has special tools for repair functions that can be deployed with wireless communication.

Mounted to the head are Hokuyo laser rangefinders, a monocular camera with a synchronized LED flash, a SR4000 time-of-flight camera, and a stereo camera coupled to an infrared light projector. Additionally, on each hand is a camera and a 3D sensor.

Capabilities of Honda’s Disaster Response Robot

Bipedal walking at 2.5 MPH
Quadrupedal walking at 1.4 MPH
Stepping over an 8-inch pipe
Frontal transition between ladder and floor
Sideways transition between ladder and floor
Climbing up 8-inch stairs
Quadrupedal walking through a 2.6-foot walkway
Bipedal walking through a 1.6-foot walkway
Passing through a 2.6-foot door
Walking on piled debris
Walking in rain falling at a rate of 1-inch/hour for 20 minutes
Climbing up and down a vertical ladder in rain falling at a rate of 1-inch/hour

Beyond Humanoid Rescue Robots

But Honda isn’t the only one investigating how robots can be used as first responders in a disaster. MIT Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Sangbae Kim is looking to how bio-inspired robots can take inspiration from other animals to assist with disaster response.

Kim’s work went viral when videos were released of his robotic cheetah quadruped that can run up to 10 mph, can see obstacles, and can jump over them.

The latest version, the Cheetah 3, was released in 2017 and is focused on disaster recovery. Currently, it can walk up stairs and lift payloads and respond to integrated voice control with Amazon’s Alexa. This latest version goes beyond strict bioinspiration to transform the Cheetah bot in ways that would have practical applications.

Although long term goals aspire to have these robots searching for people inside of a fire, short term applications are targeted to locations where you wouldn’t want to send a human, such as toxic areas or low-level radiation areas.

“Say there are toxic gases leaking in a building, and you need to close a valve inside, but it’s dangerous to send people in,” Kim says. “Now, there is no single robot that can do this kind of job. I want to create a robotic first responder that can potentially do more than a human and help in our lives.”

Weighing under 90 pounds, the Cheetah 3 uses less energy than a microwave oven while generating as much power than a car. Although the robot is Wi-Fi enabled, Kim says that in a real disaster, he would use the robot tethered with a wire because “there’s no Wi-Fi in a building that’s on fire.”

Are Disaster Response Robots Going in the Right Direction?

The field is in a sharp development phase right now, and we expect more functional models to be released by R&D teams instead of the initial prototypes that we discuss here.

While the desire is there for a single robot to have an all-in-one function that can tackle any task, any function, in any condition, it’s worth considering if a specialization approach might be better. For example, the Method-2 that we previously reported on is also being considered for use in disaster areas and hazardous sites. But in this robot, the operator sits inside a protective enclosure. In comparison to how a robot such as this could be used for large tasks, it’s reasonable to consider that a humanoid robot like the Honda E2-DR and the quadruped Cheetah 3 would each bring a different value when responding to a disaster.

Will researchers be able to develop a single robot that can accommodate such a wide variety of needs? Right now, we only have science fiction to turn to when considering that question, and even The Transformers were specialized.