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The IEEE – a large, global professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity – have found that advancements in small robots, ranging from nanorobots to shoebox-sized robots, hold promise for delivering innovative and life-altering future applications. This mini-series explores the use for nanorobots in healthcare, morphogenic robots and robots for search and rescue.

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Robots are increasingly being considered for a number of tasks that are deemed dangerous for humans, such as the US Navy’s recent development of a robot firefighter.

 Another area of potential for robots is for help in recovery from disasters, be they natural, such as an earthquake, or man-made, such as a mine accident. Robots have a number of applications that make them ideal for responding to emergency situations as they can perform a number of specialised tasks both autonomously or in close collaboration with rescue teams.

The bottom half of ASH, left, is already up and walking. A lot of the technology used to create soccer star CHARLI-2, right, is being used to help ASH fight fires Photo: Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory/Virginia Tech

A good example of this is the use of snakelike ground based robots that can burrow into rubble and access dangerous areas that are impassable for humans. Using small robots, which are no larger than a shoebox and have snakelike movement capabilities in these post-disaster situations can be extremely advantageous for serving multiple critical functions, such as burrowing into the rubble to perform initial structural scans of a disaster area, monitoring for any human life and providing aerial assessments.

In addition to this, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be used to quickly map disaster zones for a larger picture of the challenge faced by emergency crews.  UAVs can provide a live video feed on unfolding disasters to first responders, allowing for rapid assessment of threats to human life, and a quick response. UAVs can also free up valuable time for emergency services personnel, operating together in a pre-planned fashion to quickly map affected areas.

A snake robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University

Dr. Robin Murphy, IEEE Fellow… has suggested that by 2030, the use of robots in search and rescue operations will reduce the number of lives lost by 50 percent

After surveying an area, robots could also be used for providing instructions for survivors and help delivering crucial medical and food supplies. That’s an asset when timing is limited.

The use of UAVs and robots in disaster situations not only provides first responders with a useful resource in terms of mapping and investigating hostile locations, but it can also remove them from harm’s way and allow them to make a calculated assessment of risk while beginning rescue efforts. The multiple applications of robots enhances this capability, with different modifications allowing them to access a number of areas, from the air, sea or land.

Such is the potential for robots in responding to disasters that Dr. Robin Murphy, IEEE Fellow, director at the Center for Emergency Informatics has suggested that by 2030, the use of small, ground-based robots, unmanned aerial vehicles (AUVs) or drones, and underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in search and rescue operations will reduce the number of lives lost by 50 percent, and allow economic recovery to be up to twice as fast. Rescue workers worldwide should look forward to working with robots to improve efficiencies in disaster response.