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Bots without borders

Using new technology to get cameras airborne could prove useful for humanitarian workers in the future
Using new technology to get cameras airborne could prove useful for humanitarian workers in the future (Draganfly)

It may be premature to think about automating humanitarian relief activities, but Robert Richardson, who works on robotics at the University of Manchester in the UK, suggests that there definitely is potential for the future.

Richardson has recently been briefing representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontières-UK, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and several academic institutions in London as part of the Humanitarian Futures Programme’s framework for dialogue between humanitarian policymakers and scientists.

Robots have already attracted the attention of military and police organizations around the world. According to slides presented at Richardson’s briefing, the US Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to have one third of the vehicles in the US army guided by robots by 2015.

Richardson thinks that the cost of using robot-driven transport vehicles during emergency situations will be prohibitively expensive for the next few decades, but there are other uses where robots, or autonomous machines, can prove extremely useful.

Aerial surveillance

One of the most promising areas is in quick aerial surveillance.

Draganfly, a Canadian company based in Saskatchewan, produces several light un-manned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can carry a Canon G9 camera for aerial shots, or a small TV camera. “It looks like a model helicopter,” said Richardson, “but it is more sophisticated. In a humanitarian emergency it could provide a quick aerial view of the surrounding area in order to see the condition of roads and where people are.”

The Draganfly, which has just started commercial production, starts at around US$15,000. The forensic department of the Ontario Provincial Police used one in a search for evidence in a homicide investigation in a remote area.

Robin Murphy, a US scientist working on humanitarian robots at Texas A&M University, is developing a system that uses very small helicopter-borne cameras to photograph a disaster area and then feed the data into a computer program called Rubble Viewer. The different images are then synthesized into a 3-D model, which enables rescue workers to immediately visualize the entire scene and determine where survivors are likely to be found.

The Rubble Viewer project has been using a series of extremely small multi-rotor UAVs produced by Air Robot, based in Germany.

Mini helicopters capable of carrying a camera could prove to be a valuable tool for aerial surveillance

Mini helicopters capable of carrying a camera could prove to be a valuable tool for aerial surveillance ...
Mini helicopters capable of carrying a camera could prove to be a valuable tool for aerial surveillance
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Bots without borders
Mini helicopters capable of carrying a camera could prove to be a valuable tool for aerial surveillance

Photo: Draganfly
Mini helicopters capable of carrying a camera could prove to be a valuable tool for aerial surveillance

Search and rescue

Murphy also runs the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASR), which maintains a rapid response team already equipped with a number of specialized robots for search and rescue work. She operates a blog on robots in emergency rescue work.

Apart from aerial surveillance, robots have a promising future in worming their way through rubble in order to reach victims trapped by debris. Richardson pointed out in his talk that early attempts to use robots during the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster ran into trouble when loose debris blocked their path. The most effective use at the time was to dangle the robot from a wire into a hole, relying on its camera for added information. Most robots proved too large to get very far.

Since then, considerable progress has been made and a whole generation of robots have been designed to work like mechanical snakes or caterpillars, which can carry a miniature TV camera deep inside a damaged building.

The University of Michigan has developed a caterpillar-like robot, called the omnitread-4, which can move through a hole that is only 4 inches (about 10cm) in diameter, can climb straight up a tiny crawl space, and can operate on its own batteries for more than an hour. Another robot Richardson’s group is working on resembles a mechanical mole, and has powerful claws that can push rubble aside.

In the stress of an emergency, it is questionable whether anyone has the time to hammer the kinks out of a new technology, and Richardson points out that one drawback is that using a robot requires training and some expertise, but as the technology evolves it will become increasingly useful.

Opening the “planning horizon”

“The idea is to get people involved in humanitarian issues to start thinking about these things,” he said. “We are trying to open doors.”

In fact, Richardson notes that an ordinary automobile is becoming increasingly robotized. “It is being done incrementally,” he said. “Instead of automating the whole thing at once, small parts of the car, like the traction control, are being made autonomous.”

Rosie Oglesby, programme coordinator for the Humanitarian Futures Programme, which hosted the seminar, says that the idea at this stage is to get humanitarian policymakers together with the latest scientific developments. “What we are trying to do,” she said, “is to open the planning horizon. It is more about thinking what’s out there on the horizon, and what ought to be on your radar. We’re opening a dialogue. These organizations need to be able to engage with the experts.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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