A team for an emergency

Oct 17, 2011

Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes -- natural disasters always catch us by surprise, no matter how many early warning systems are in place. This makes it all the more important for rescue teams to get a quick overview of the situation at hand. In SENEKA, a Markets Beyond Tomorrow project, Fraunhofer researchers are working to network the various robots and sensor systems first responders use so that they can react more quickly and efficiently in the case of an emergency to search for victims and survivors.

The earth is shaking, buildings are collapsing, power and utility lines as well asroads are destroyed. A disaster can have many causes, but usually the outcome is the same: chaos, panic and dedicated but overtaxed first responders. The people lying buried under the rubble hold hopes for a speedy rescue, but sometimes it takes hours or even days to work through an entire area. To make matters worse, the work of rescue personnel can become extremely dangerous. Because every minute counts when the work of saving lives is concerned, robot-supported systems are increasingly used to accelerate search operations. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the rate of growth in the use of these helpers is expected to increase to 17 percent by 2013. The experience of the past several years also shows that the impact of special robots is very minor because individual devices and systems often cannot function with one another in the field.

In the " with Mobile Robots for " project, Fraunhofer scientists from a variety of disciplines have teamed up to solve this problem and develop a system that can effectively network all kinds of robots and sensors with one another. The team includes the Fraunhofer Institutes for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB in Karlsruhe, for and Automation IPA in Stuttgart; for and Information Systems in Sankt Augustin, for IIS in Erlangen and for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM in Freiburg. Also involved in the project, advising the researchers and as potential end customers, are the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW, the German federal disaster relief organization) and the fire departments of Berlin and Mannheim.

A mosaic of information

After disaster strikes, first responders must first get an overview of the area involved. Existing maps and data are useful, but only up to a point if there are no more buildings standing and roads have been blocked or destroyed. The helpers have to reorient themselves, and the only way to accomplish this is with the aid of technical equipment.

Even in this reconnaissance phase of the mission, networking plays a role. "To help people, we have to find them first. To accomplish this, we use ground-based units, airborne robots and other autonomous sensors that fan out across a broad area to gather a large volume of relevant data in a short period of time," explains project coordinator Helge-Björn Kuntzee of Fraunhofer IOSB. These sensors make use of radar and laser scanners as well as optical cameras. Specially developed multi-source SLAM algorithms have the capability of generating a current 2D/3D map of the landscape using data drawn from disparate sources. For instance, these algorithms can combine low-resolution images taken from the air with close-ups of destroyed areas taken at ground level. Using these images, responders can more quickly identify dangerous areas and the sources of damage. This gives them a better appreciation of the overall situation. Researchers are also working to develop autonomous sensors and multisensor probes that do not operate visually but respond to odors or sounds instead. For instance, these sensors are quicker at leading rescue teams to people trapped beneath the rubble who are banging to try to attract attention to themselves. Chemical sensors are particularly important to rescue personnel because they can signal the presence of gases.

A question of coordination

Once potential victims and have been located, the second step consists of mission planning. For this stage, the scientists want to create a system design to provide dynamic networking of all team members. People and robots need to be coordinated – to ensure that the right tools make it to the right location, for instance. This must be possible on an "as-needed" basis, even if the surroundings change – due to collapsing buildings or aftershocks. Still, robots should be able to find their way through the rubble, usually without collisions. "The network must be robust but flexible at the same time, and dynamically modifiable. Circumstances can change very quickly in danger zones," Helge-Björn Kuntzee explains of the high demands involved. To keep all responders linked despite extreme conditions, the scientists are developing their own protocol technologies combining conventional WLAN technology with standards of their own.

SENEKA is designed to quickly deploy technological innovations in practical situations. The robots and systems should be simple to operate and combine. The network is undergoing testing in emergency exercises by fire department personnel. The researchers hope that reliable teamwork between man and machine will make it possible to save more lives in the future.

SENEKA is one of seven "Markets Beyond Tomorrow" projects. In these researchers are working to find solutions to the pressing problems of the future.

Explore further: A robot dives into search for Malaysian Airlines flight

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tests check out rescue robots' life-saving vision

Jun 12, 2008

To save lives, search and rescue robots crawling through the rubble of a collapsed building or surveying a chemical spill area must be capable of beaming back clear, easily interpretable images of what they "see" to operators ...

Rescue Robot Tests To Offer Responders High-Tech Help

Jun 12, 2007

National Institute of Standards and Technology engineers are organizing the fourth in a series of Response Robot Evaluation Exercises for urban search and rescue (US&R) responders to be held on June 18-22, ...

CeBIT 2011: Preparing for the unexpected

Feb 17, 2011

How can you plan for an emergency the nature of which you don’t know? Several Fraunhofer institutes are working on strategies and technologies that would help to predict and improve the response to crises. ...

Send in the robots -- Robot teams handle hazardous jobs

May 02, 2007

Searching buildings for weapons of mass destruction and supply routes for improvised bombs are extremely dangerous but important jobs. That's why Scott DeLoach is working to create robots and robot teams to handle these and ...

Recommended for you

A robot dives into search for Malaysian Airlines flight

Apr 18, 2014

In the hunt for signs of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370—which disappeared on March 8 after deviating for unknown reasons from its scheduled flight path—all eyes today turn to a company that got its start ...

Simplicity is key to co-operative robots

Apr 16, 2014

A way of making hundreds—or even thousands—of tiny robots cluster to carry out tasks without using any memory or processing power has been developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Students turn $250 wheelchair into geo-positioning robot

Apr 16, 2014

Talk about your Craigslist finds! A team of student employees at The University of Alabama in Huntsville's Systems Management and Production Center (SMAP) combined inspiration with innovation to make a $250 ...

Using robots to study evolution

Apr 14, 2014

A new paper by OIST's Neural Computation Unit has demonstrated the usefulness of robots in studying evolution. Published in PLOS ONE, Stefan Elfwing, a researcher in Professor Kenji Doya's Unit, has succes ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...