IEEE: send robots into disaster zones

With the tragic events that have unfolded in Japan following the catastrophic earthquake off the country’s coast, some have raised the idea of using robotics to aid human efforts within disaster zones.

According to Antonio Espingardeiro, a robotics expert at the IEEE, more could have and should be done to use the possibilities offered by robots to help limit the effects of the Japanese disaster and the effects of the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

“In this situation, if there was better preparation with the appropriate technology then perhaps circumstances could already be improved,” he told TechEye.

Espingardeiro believes that risks could be lowered through the increased use of robots such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which can, for example, be equipped with radiation sensors for the purposes of monitoring and analysing air quality.

However it is a predominantly human crew that is working in the radioactive atmosphere to deal with the disaster, although preparations are being made to introduce more robotic devices for tasks such as inspecting underwater infrastructure.

“More needs to be done in the future to ensure that the relevant robotic technologies are available in disaster zones such as that of Japan,” said Espingardeiro.

“Japan has had to call for international help in order to provide appropriate robotics that can be used in the situation, with the US providing the main supply of hardware with its thermal imaging UAVs and other robotic technology.”

According to Espingardeiro, it is up to governments across the world to put more emphasis on the use of robotics in such situations to mitigate risks in the future.

“There is certainly a culture of change within views towards the use of robotics, but there needs to be more done to ensure that the relevant quality and quantity of hardware is available when it is needed.

“Many governments are just starting to realise the potential of robotics in such situations.”

Espingardeiro believes that the problem lies in the lack of suitable equipment available, alongside a lack of investment in the relevant training of personnel in the operation of robots on a large scale.

One of the stumbling blocks lies in the fact that the majority of cutting edge robotics technologies are the sole preserve of militaries, which account for large numbers of the hardware.

“While there are maybe 10-15 units in use in the Japanese disaster, there were for example 6,000 robots used in the Iraq war,” he said.

Espingardeiro thinks it’s necessary that production is moved away from the military sphere so that commercialisation will allow current technologies to become more cost effective and not just for the defence budget-backed militaries.

“It is natural that technologies are more expensive initially, for example a number of years ago GPS was only used by the military, but I expect that robotics technology will also become more easily accessible.

“This will mean that rather than having a small number of units available in a particular situation which may cost over a million dollars, you might have one hundred.

“Therefore the inherent dangers that can be found in an environment such as in Japan, which could easily damage the cameras or sensors of a robot, would not cause any hesitation in use of a robot for a specific task.

“But it is very difficult to get your hands on a robot currently, even if you have the money.”

Of course as Espingardeiro notes, the reduction in costing is something that will gradually come down due to market prices for relevant chips, sensors and motors, but with more investment in direct development of robotics technologies he believes that the timescale for the next generation of robots could be reduced from the expected ten to fifteen years.

In the longer term this will enable the use of significantly more sophisticated technology which would mean improved effectiveness in high risk situations.

“There are already examples of robots that have greatly increased dexterity compared to the gripper mechanisms of the current robots which are used in search and rescue missions,” he says.

One example Espingardeiro points to is NASA’s ‘Robonaut’ which utilises highly sophisticated dexterous touch that would enable precise control far away from dangerous areas, with particular use in the Japanese case.

Again, while this remote technology is available to some degree, more research needs to be done to solve bug problems and to make it more attainable.

As another longer term contingency plan, Espingardeiro believes that future nuclear reactors should place much more emphasis in their design on facilitating the use of robots.

The ideas can’t be implemented in immediate or even short term time scales, but Espingardeiro says that as governments begin to fully realise the potential for robotics in disaster situations more can be done to use the technology to save lives – by sending in the robots straight away.