Series| Uprising

These search and rescue robots could save your life

From firefighting drones to snake and spider robots, these futuristic first responders are designed to save lives.
Watch on YouTube

Along with every firefighter’s commitment to put the safety of others before their own, their tools have gone largely unchanged since the beginnings of official fire departments. They still use ladders, saws, axes, and hoses to fight fires, respond to disasters, save citizens and property.

In spite of their heroic bravery and intense training, first responders are only human, and they’re limited by human senses and vulnerabilities. But with the rise of new technology comes search and rescue robots, on their way to eliminating several on-the-job risks.

Taking the form of spiders and snakes, these rescue bots creep, crawl, and slither in to help those who run into burning buildings, while everyone else is running out, to do their jobs even better. 

The Search and Rescue Robots Working Alongside First Responders

Search and rescue robots won’t be rendering human first responders obsolete anytime soon. Rather, the goal with these new advancements in technology is to use robots as a powerful aid that reduces risk for first responders and helps them do their jobs more effectively.

The hope is that robotic technologies could assist in saving more lives and protecting first responders from unnecessary harm.

One of the first robotic technologies adopted by a handful of fire stations is the drone. But a firefighting drone doesn’t actually fight fire. It can, however, provide an aerial view of a disaster site, giving firefighters access to invaluable information such as the smoke direction and layout of the fire.

This allows firefighters a tactical advantage, helping them develop an effective strategy for neutralizing the fire and even pinpointing the best location to park their trucks.

During the 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, for example, a large-scale deployment of drones was used to determine the location of fires, the direction in which they were traveling, and the properties and people who were potentially in their paths.

Although the drones did no actual work fighting the fires, the information they provided helped firefighters make better use of their resources. 

Meet Colossus, the Firefighter Robot That Doused Notre Dame

One notable fire-fighting robot recently took the spotlight as the world watched it help the Paris Firefighter Brigade stop the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. Its name is Colossus and it’s a fireproof and waterproof, human-controlled emergency response robot.

Shark Robotics designed the Colossus to aid human search and rescue teams when conditions are deemed too risky. Colossus features a powerful water canon and can carry up to 1,200 pounds, making it useful for extinguishing fires and transporting people or equipment.

But beyond gathering visual information or physically helping extinguish a fire, search and rescue robots are being developed to do exactly what their name says: to search and rescue. 

The Search and Rescue Robots of The Future

Today, humanoid robots with two arms and two legs are being developed specifically for the purpose of search and rescue. In testing and competitions, these robots have already proven successful when navigating structures designed for people, such as a Navy ship with narrow stairwells.

If a building, however, has collapsed or been compromised in a natural disaster, the uneven and unstable terrain calls for different forms.

When it comes to designing search and rescue robots that can lift extremely heavy objects, crawl over and through rugged terrain, slither through tight spaces, and climb challenging structures, researchers are looking to the animal kingdom for inspiration.

In a laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, professor of robotics Howie Choset is using nature to solve these exact challenges. He’s currently working on a snake-like robot, designed to assist rescue workers in a compromised building.

Choset’s robotic snake can search through the rubble of a collapsed building without disturbing it or potentially harming individuals trapped within.

Search and rescue robot designs featuring the weight distribution of a spider’s legs, the agility of a cheetah, and other superhuman senses and capabilities like breath detection, are also in development. 

So Why Aren’t Robotic Snakes and Spider Robots Everywhere?

The development and widespread use of these search and rescue robots largely faces funding issues. Most people only care about disasters and response efforts the day a disaster occurs and maybe a few days afterward.

Following the initial impact and news coverage, disaster response is out of sight and out of mind. As a result, research and development efforts neither receive necessary public support, nor funding.

In addition, some first responders are reluctant to adopt these nascent technologies, as tried and true methods are often deemed safer and more reliable. But as more first responders see the impact of robotic technologies, it’s believed that more firehouses will adopt them. 

The Heroic Future of Search and Rescue Robots

As robots become increasingly intelligent, agile, sensitive, and less expensive to produce, one day they’ll be deployed en masse to disaster sites in a strategy scientifically called a “heterogeneous multi-agent ergodic search.”

This strategy involves the deployment of hundreds or even thousands of robots to a disaster location to gather information and communicate with humans who are overseeing and coordinating the rescue response.

For now, when it comes to robotic search and rescue, we have snakes and spiders in development, the increasingly accepted application of drone technology, and Colossus by our side.

Still, no efforts can compare to the sacrifices made each and every day by dedicated first responders. Hopefully soon, with stronger levels of public support of these new technologies, humans and robots will come together to eliminate risk and save more lives.

For more from our Uprising series on the latest in robotic technology, subscribe to Freethink.

Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories