ROBOTS IN THE RUBBLE
Within 24 hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center, teams from the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, a national group of academic, military, and industrial robotics experts, arrived on the scene.
One team, led by University of South Florida computer scientist Robin Murphy, carried shoebox-size robots in backpacks up the mountain of rubble where the Twin Towers once stood. Five times in eight attempts, the robots succeeded in crawling into spaces beneath the wreckage. The machines located the bodies of five victims.
The robots moved on caterpillar treads, like miniature tanks. All were operated remotely by radio or a cable tether, but the goal is to develop robots that explore autonomously -- finding their own way through the rubble.
In addition to locating victims, robots could map disaster areas and deliver emergency supplies. Small and expendable, robots can be sent into areas that people cannot reach or that are too unstable to be explored safely. Even the simple act of climbing atop a rubble pile can be dangerous, so Murphy is developing what she calls a "marsupial" team: a "mother" robot that can carry a smaller "baby" onto a heap of rubble, then deploy the baby to search under the debris.
Will robots replace human rescuers? Definitely not. "The purpose of robots is to do the things people and dogs can't," says Murphy. "The true heroes remain the firemen and rescuers. We're just techno-geeks that help them."
-- Paul Beck
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.