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Putting robot rescuers to the test; Texas facility measures the usefulness of first responders in shining armor

COLLEGE STATION, Texas Thomas Meyer stood in the sweltering heat of Disaster City with a remote control in his hands, ready to show off his pride and joy.

Resting on the ground in front of him was a small robot that looked like a hula hoop with a 36-inch diameter, two wires crossing in the middle, propellers resting on each quadrant and a computer in the center.

Meyer fiddled with a few levers on his controller, causing the machine’s four small propellers to spin rapidly, and within seconds the device was in the air and ready to demonstrate to rescue workers how it can save lives.

Meyer’s machine, the AirRobot, is made by a German company of the same name.

His was one of 23 robots being tested by Texas A&M University’s Texas Engineering Extension Service, known as TEEX, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, for use in search-and-rescue situations.

The robots – which range in price from $5,000 to $200,000 – are designed to perform tasks and enter tight or dangerous places where humans can’t go.

“The big picture is that the Department of Homeland Security expressed an interest in allowing first responders to start using robots to help keep them out of harm’s way,” said Elena Messina, program manager for the robot project.

However, measures of the robots’ capabilities and usefulness don’t exist, making it difficult for responders to evaluate whether the machines are worth the cost. NIST is using the tests this week to help develop standards of mobility, sensing, navigation, planning and human factors.

To do so, about 60 first responders from all over the world, robot developers, NIST personnel and TEEX’s Texas Task Force 1 rescuers were at Disaster City on the Texas A&M campus recently to experiment with the robots.

Disaster City is a 52-acre training facility for first responders.

Going where humans can’t

One member of the test team is Alexander Ferworn, a professor of computer science at Toronto’s Ryerson University and a member of Canada Task Force 3, a heavy urban search-and-rescue team. He can think of many circumstances that would benefit from having a robot.

“We were working a rescue in a hotel, and we needed to look inside a stairwell, but it was pitch-black and a no-go area for rescuers,” Ferworn said.

Ferworn, who specializes in using dogs to help with rescues, said he wanted to lower a dog into the stairwell with a camera attached to ensure that it was safe to enter but could not find a dog handler who would allow it.

“We could have used a robot that would have easily just been lowered down in there to look,” he said.

Realistic scenarios

The robots were tested throughout Disaster City’s vast field in scenarios similar to the one Ferworn described. Machines were sent into a mock train wreck, a reproduction of a collapsed government building and piles of rubble made to simulate buildings destroyed by hurricanes or tornadoes.

“This facility provides absolutely unique scenarios,” Messina said. “It is one-stop shopping for disaster training.”

Robots also were sent through mazes to test mobility, around tracks to test endurance, up stairs and over piles of rocks to test control. They were even given eye tests similar to the ones humans take to check the video feeds the robots provide to their operators.

NIST has had four testing sessions similar to the one held recently in College Station. The series of tests were the second to take place at Disaster City since the project began.

The AirRobot gained the attention of many testers because of its maneuverability in the air and its light weight. When Meyer took his hands off the controller, the machine hovered in the air and waited for its next command. Its four rotors spun at varying speeds that adjusted themselves to deal with wind or a device being hit.

The robot’s computer had a camera and an infrared sensor and was capable of detecting hazardous chemicals.

“You can go extremely close to tight or dangerous spaces with this,” Meyer said. “It is good for bomb squads and search and rescue. I can fly the machine in my living room. It is extremely safe.”

Different robots excelled at different tasks. Some could climb walls and crawl over and under debris.

A robot that researchers were calling the snake, developed by Tohoku University in Japan, looked like a garden hose and was able to slither into spaces that no rescue worker could enter.

“This one is just phenomenal for us,” said Martial Voitier, with the TEEX communications office. “We are pretty excited about it.”

Light years ahead

The snake, which is actually called an Active Scope Camera, still needs work, testers and designers said, but is an example of how far the robots have come, even since the testing began.

“If you did a Web search five years ago for rescue robots, you would see a robot on a table with a rock on the left of it, a rock on the right and one on top, and designers would be saying it had good maneuverability because it could go through those rocks,” Ferworn said. “Now these robots are doing so much more.”

Still, testers and engineers said that many of the robots are too expensive or too specialized for general use. If rescuers were to buy them, they would have to decide between picking a versatile robot that might have some limits or one that performs specific tasks and might have some kinks yet to be worked out.

As Ferworn relaxed for a minute in the air conditioning and described the machines that he helped test, he pointed out one of the perks of his job.

“This is also a lot of fun,” he said, scanning the equipment that resembled remote-controlled toys.