Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“Rescue Robots Don’t Replace People or Dogs, but People and Dogs Can’t do it All by Themselves”

May 31st, 2011 / in Uncategorized / by Ran Libeskind-Hadas

I’ve been interacting with the international press quite a bit with the spate of disasters in Japan and here in the US. I’m thrilled with the “where are the robots?” questions for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the Sally Fields effect- they like robots! Finally, I was getting tired of hearing about the Terminator and robot uprisings. Second, I get to point that out that there is a set of land, sea, and marine vehicles sufficiently hardened to be of use- while putting in a pitch for the government to fund acquisition. (But no worries, these robots are the first generation and need lots of improvements and fundamental research so I’m not talking any us out of funding.)

What surprises me are the “how can robots possibly replace people or dogs you idiot (or evil person)?!” questions. Like the opening salvo I got from the Washington Post reader here.

Rescue robots aren’t intended to replace people or canines. Or search cameras on wands. Or acoustic detectors. Or any of the other response tools. Rescue robots are generally intended to do things that can’t be done now by any means. Most often, such as at building or mine collapses, this means a ground robot going into voids much smaller than a dog or person could crawl in or going deeper. Or flying up close to a collapse structure- closer than a manned system could do and without kicking up dust that obscures the camera view or spreads radioactivity.  Or going into shallow, debris-filled waters where that manual divers cannot enter to inspect bridge footings, ports, and pipelines, and conduct victim recovery.

Rescue robots aren’t even envisioned to be autonomous swarms, rather the desire is for swarms of responders to extend themselves in real-time into the disaster.  Rescue robots are a type of prosthetic for people: a virtual prosthetic that gives them eyes and hands miles away and in extreme places (versus the office or factory on the other side of the country, as being marketed by companies such as Willow Garage). And since voids or areas of interest are generally few and the different groups that need to look at them are large (civil engineer, medical specialist, extrication specialist, etc.), responders may have to share their prosthetic- but that’s another research story.

Let’s hope that the terrible tragedies here and abroad will help transform the nascent awareness of the possibilities of robots in disasters into actual research, development, and acquisition programs. Rescue robots don’t replace people or dogs, but people and dogs can’t do it all by themselves.

(Contributed by Robin Murphy, Texas A&M University)

“Rescue Robots Don’t Replace People or Dogs, but People and Dogs Can’t do it All by Themselves”

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