Disasters are sudden, cataclysmic events that usually cause a significant loss of life or property, affecting a portion of a given population. Search and rescue robots are gaining a considerable place in disaster relief because they can typically access areas that may be deemed too dangerous for humans to enter. The robots at sites of significant disasters help reduce the loss of human life due to the extreme conditions that may exist at those locations. The field of search and rescue robotics is gaining new footholds in different areas of disaster relief as more public awareness surrounding these life-saving tools grows. As the technology that drives these devices gets more in-field experience, their ability to respond to disaster relief becomes more comprehensive and more complex, allowing them to perform more difficult and challenging tasks that used to be performed only by humans. While some of the robots that are deployed to disaster areas are controlled by someone on the rescue team, autonomous (self-driven) robots are becoming the norm when critical situations arise.
The use of drones in search and rescue operations is usually the quickest way for an emergency response team to assess the extent of the damage they are sent to investigate. It is considered the first stage of the rescue operation, and drones are very affordable, and the training to use one takes only a couple of days. Although they are pretty simple in terms of process, their built-in automation makes it easy for their operators to be able to zoom in and maintain focus on a given point when flying over the disaster area searching for survivors. These drones can also help rescuers map a plan for accessing the site, either physically themselves or for another larger robot.
Robots in Meteorological Events
In extreme weather, search and rescue robots are becoming critical participants in finding people, whether they are buried under ice and snow or trapped underwater. They can perform their instructions without the fear of physical harm and are not subject to the same stresses that would be harmful or even fatal to a human being. In some cases, these types of robots vary in size and function, and smaller robots are used in situations where they can provide life-support tasks such as bringing a rope to an avalanche victim. Larger, floating robots can be used with great efficiency to provide multi-person evacuations during sudden, extreme flooding. In some cases, there are much smaller tethered robots that are used to navigate submerged buildings and bridges that are snake-like in the way that they move through the water to search for survivors.
Robots in Geological Isues
For disasters of a geological nature, such as an earthquake or a landslide, there are special-purpose search and rescue robots designed to gain access to areas that are considered too unstable for emergency personnel to access. Small-track vehicles can be used in situations where there is a broader area of access for a small vehicle to gain access. In areas where there is limited space for access, there are snake-like robots used to navigate rubble so that rescue personnel can find and comfort survivors. More miniature robots have the advantage that they can maneuver through debris much faster and can adapt to varying materials that they may encounter while crawling through dirt, mud, or sand. Development is underway for building much larger search and rescue robots that can lift and remove large pieces of debris such as concrete columns and sections of flooring to gain faster access to areas that would take much longer using traditional methods.
Robots in Man-made Disasters
When it comes to a man-made disaster, such as a building collapse, or an act of terrorism, search and rescue robotics can be very helpful in finding and rescuing survivors in critical, unstable areas. There is still a chance that a hostile enemy’s threat level to human life is extremely elevated and a search and rescue robot can be used to minimize the danger to human intervention. Other disasters, such as a chemical spill, have their own special requirements for search and rescue robots in environments that are highly corrosive to their components. These robots are usually medium-sized tread vehicles with attachments that can be safely used to grip onto a survivor and drag (or sometimes carry) any survivors to safety.
Robots in Mine Catastrophes
Search and rescue robots are especially helpful in the event of a mine collapse. As is often the case with these types of disasters, they usually happen deep underground, and there is not a lot of information available to the search and rescue team when they arrive on the scene. Traditional rescue methods usually take a long time to get to the scene of the collapse, and then it is usually a hazardous mission to enter the collapsed area. By using specially designed small track automated vehicles that are outfitted with custom vision and air sampling systems, rescuers can now safely navigate through a collapsed site where there could be a mixture of water and toxic fumes that would make it even more difficult for a human to perform the rescue. There is also a high risk of explosion since methane or other flammable gases are present in mine collapses, so these robots are usually protected by explosion-proof cases to protect their sensors, minimize damage to their sensitive electronics, and prevent secondary ones explosions that could endanger the survivors.
One of the biggest hindrances in adopting search and rescue robotics in emergency services is simply that there is not enough public awareness that these tools exist to aid emergency rescue teams. Disasters do not discriminate on where they occur, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for small-town governments to justify the expense of purchasing a search and rescue robot and then having to train emergency personnel on how to use it. Fortunately, with the broader adoption of these life-saving robots, the cost of purchasing these vehicles will come down and make it affordable for local town governments to purchase. We must also consider that as the field of search and rescue robotics gains more experience. These artificial intelligence systems guide these robots will get smarter at making decisions autonomously and make it easier for the robot handlers to perform their jobs.