Send in the Rescue Robots

Testing emergency-response robots in Disaster City, Texas

Earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones -- disasters like these make the natural environment both unnavigable and dangerous for human search-and-rescue teams. That's when it's time for robots to come to our rescue.

Earthquakes are a recurring problem in Japan, an archipelago that rests on four tectonic plates. Japan also happens to be a hotbed of robotics research, so the two have come together in surprising ways.

Professor Satoshi Tadokoro of Tohoku University has recently developed a snakebot with a camera for eyes that can slither into the rubble of collapsed buildings to see if anyone's trapped there and to send images back to rescuers in real time.

Video fiberscopes aren't anything new -- but the difference with the snakebot is its skin of vibrating white nylon bristles, powered by tiny motors, which allows it move it forward on its own, at a speed of two inches per second. It's more of a caterpillarbot, actually, which can turn corners, climb 20-degree inclines, squeeze through gaps only an inch wide, and slide over obstacles more than half a foot high. With a twist of the cable, rescuers can direct the 26-foot long snake to go in any direction, deep into the rubble.

U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials recently tested the system at a training site in Texas, and Professor Todokoro also successfully tested it during the investigation of a parking garage collapse in Jacksonville, Florida.

Professor Tadokoro turned his research towards developing search-and-rescue robots after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people. He is president of the International Rescue System Institute, a non-profit organization promoting research and technology development for disaster relief.

He found that reconnaissance and the ability to rapidly locate victims are critical needs in disaster situations. Navigating over and through rubble is notoriously hard. His team also developed another snake-like robot, larger this time, with a three-segmented tracked body that can maneuver over low piles of rubble and roll to escape tight situations in its search for victims.

And for climbing the really big rubble piles, call in the extra-rugged wheeled robot named Kenaf -- it can climb steps and traverse 70-degree slopes of rubble. Professor Tadokoro's six-motor wireless robot carries cameras and other sensors and is remotely operated with a joystick.

But what happens after you've saved someone trapped under the rubble? Just slip him or her into the newest addition to Yokohama's fire department: a coffin-shaped robotic crawler designed to ferry a human from a disaster zone to safety -- all while measuring the patient's blood flow and other vital signs. Its four rugged wheel belts help it to climb over any obstacles in its way and the motor is powerful enough to carry a 250-pound person.

Another problem with natural disasters is they tend to knock out phone lines, leaving victims stranded and rescuers without an inexpensive, reliable way to communicate with each other. Additionally, disasters often happen in areas that are already remote and inaccessible. Researchers at Germany's Ilmenau University of Technology are developing flying quad-copter robots that can soar by themselves into a disaster area, find a high place to land, and create temporary Wi-Fi internet and mobile phone networks.

The tiny winged rescuers can only fly for up to 20 minutes but can operate for much longer once landed. Built with off-the-shelf parts and equipped with GPS and radio equipment, the robots cost only $400 each -- but need a battery costing more than $1,300.

So many new rescue robots are coming out that the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently tested about three dozen robots to develop a standard battery of tests to help evaluate the mechanical rescuers, which perform such tasks as entering collapsed structures to search for victims and sniffing out poisonous chemicals. This exercise was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security to develop standards for robots used in urban search and rescue missions.

The tests included measuring battery capacity by having robots perform figure-eights on bumpy ground, and mobility tests, starting with simple step-climbing and moving on to zooming up ramps and then climbing uneven steps.

The testing took place at Disaster City, Texas ("a place where tragedy and training meet"), a test facility featuring all of the familiar terrain of disasters: collapsed buildings, train wrecks, bombed-out government buildings, and rubble piles that can be arranged to simulate all kind of disasters -- both natural and man-made.