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Where humans fear to tread: robots are the future of disaster relief

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 1:15 IST

What's high-tech to the rest of the world has always been so last year to Japan. Which is why, if you want to know where truly futuristic tech is going, you don't look at Silicon Valley - you look at Tokyo.

And this year, it's all about their newest humanoid robot. At the recent International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan displayed a pair of two-legged humanoid robots completely equipped for disaster relief management.

These robots can operate in the kind of harsh conditions that thwart human rescue and relief efforts - at a demo, a pair of these humanoid machines with sensors attached to tiny heads walked through fake debris and extinguished a fire.

Wait, there are robot exhibitions now?

Yes, and has been for quite a while - if you've been paying attention to us, you'll know that robots are so mainstream, they're now even being built for sex.

This particular show takes place every two years and this year, has drawn nearly 450 participants, including 60 from Britain, Russia, South Korea and France. The theme for this year's exhibition was primarily disaster relief, farming and assisting the elderly and their caregivers.

Why disaster, though?

If there's a nation that has faced an extraordinary succession of disasters - and with more resilience than we'd expect - it's Japan.

Disasters, especially earthquakes, are a way of life for the nation; it's an archipelago nation that faces the 'Ring of Fire' - one of the most tectonically active places on earth - and is also prone to volcanic eruptions.

The two droids demo-ed were developed as part of a project under Japan's New Energy and Industrial Development (NEDO) - a national research organisation started post the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In the demo, the two robots registered their surroundings and accordingly made their way forward. When the path was blocked, the robot removed a box of debris and secured a clear pathway. They demonstrated judgement in those scenarios, however they're not road-worthy yet, according to NEDO robot division head Shuji Yumitori. They're working aggressively on improvements and will, he hopes, have these robots in commercial use in about five years.

Maybe Wall-E will come to the rescue before that, though

Japan isn't the only nation developing robots for disaster relief or rescue - back in June, the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Robotics Challenge in the US with the goal of fostering new generations of rescue robots. These robots, in turn, could save precious lives the next time disaster hits.

Twenty-four teams from the US and around the globe took part in a backbreaking - well, maybe not for robots - obstacle course otherwise known as the Robot Olympics. The final winner? South Korea's KAIST team with its DRC-HUBO robot.

DARPA isn't exactly new to innovation. In the past, it has helped bring us the stealth bomber, the drone, the autonomous car and, if that didn't feel achieve-y enough to you, the internet itself. When DARPA is involved, you know the project has some serious legs. Their own Robotics Challenge humanoid robot is called Valkyrie and while she wasn't particularly impressive against the competition, she's no slouch.

Robots in the disaster zone

They're not new to disaster use: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, robots played a crucial part in connecting emergency responders and survivors. Equipped with cameras, microphones and sensors, these robots searched for victims stranded in homes and rooftoops.

Meanwhile, at the Italian Institute of Technology, scientists have developed a humanoid 'Walk-Man' robot. Designed to access areas that are too dangerous for humans, they're able to use the same tools as humans. "The idea with this robot is that there will always be some pilots at the back, that will be remotely placed and actually guide the robot in any case that a decision needs to be made," project coordinator Nikos Tsagarakis told Pioneer News.

Where there's robots, drones aren't far behind

Robots aren't the only ones helping the relief process. Drones are, naturally, being employed, too.

Murphy, a robotics professor and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University sees great potential in their use for rescue operations. "It acts like a plane. It's smarter than a plane because it's got all sorts of onboard electronics to let it do preprogram surveys. It takes pictures like on a satellite or a Mars explorer and then pulls those back together into a hyper-accurate map -- a 3-D reconstruction," he said in an interview to CNN.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) complement human disaster responders by providing photos of locations to look for victims.

PrecisionHawk Lancaster is one such fixed wing drone. These drones along with robots on the ground, like the RoboSimian, do a great job in aiding humans on the site.

RoboSimian is a highly developed robot that can be deployed in the field, can scan for objects and assess the situation and do things like pick up a drill, turn a valve or other tasks that often prove difficult for humans in rescue settings.

But can the next calamity be averted by R2-D2, the pair of disaster robots Tokyo is testing? It's certainly plausible: most of these robots could have been lifesavers during the Fukushima disaster, for instance, but they weren't developed then. They could have been sent in to areas where fear of radiation didn't allow humans to be sent.

Speed is the only thing limiting them at the moment - almost all these robots are slow, which may not always work in realtime rescue operations.

That's the next frontier - to take these robots out of the competitive landscape and into the real, harsh one. When will that be? A five year timeframe looks most likely. Till then, we humans are on our own.

First published: 15 December 2015, 3:53 IST
 
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.

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