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Project Success Stories - Robots to the rescue

Fire crews and emergency services save lives by making split-second decisions in highly dangerous situations. Making the right decision depends on having as much available information as possible, in order to properly assess and execute the best course of action. Recent developments in robotics have been made that could provide some valuable help in this instance.
Project Success Stories - Robots to the rescue
Important tasks like firefighting and minefield clearing operate within the smallest margins of error. The need for effective information management is a priority. 'If there is a big incident for the fire services here in the UK, there are three different levels: bronze, silver, gold,' explains Jacques Penders, head of the Centre for Automation and Robotics Research (CARR) at Sheffield Hallam University.

'These situations involve different actors, and one of the problems of a constantly evolving situation is lost information,' he continues. 'Firefighting teams are usually the first to arrive, are able to see what is happening and can call for more people if needed. If the incident then gets referred to a higher level, there isn't exactly the time to sit down and discuss the situation for two hours, so information is inevitably lost.'

This is one reason why effective information systems are vital. On-the-ground crews need access to accurate and reliable information to enable them to function. Firstly, information must be gathered effectively, and secondly, it must be processed as efficiently as possible. It is important, for example, that vital data is passed on quickly to the incident commander, while irrelevant data is not.

This was the starting point of the 'Vision and chemi-resistor equipped web-connected finding robots' (View-Finder) project, for which Dr Penders was coordinator. Dr Penders and his associates were interested in finding out how robotics could be applied to existing structures of information gathering and dissemination for the emergency services, and ultimately improve on-site operations. Initial discussions were held between potential end-users, organised by the Royal Military Academy in Belgium and involving various first responders including firefighter and civil protection services.

The EU-funded project ran from 2006 to 2009 and examined the use of semi-autonomous mobile robot platforms to establish ground safety in the aftermath of fire incidents. It also examined how robotic automation could be incorporated into a more comprehensive response system. 'With this project we didn't solve all the problems,' says Dr Penders. 'But we made big steps forward, and convinced end-users that there is a future in robotics. Firefighters don't necessarily know much about robotics — it is not exactly their field — but this project was about providing them with information about what was possible.'

On the ground

For gathering data, the project looked at integrating a wide array of optical and chemical sensors on mobile robots, capable of sending data and images from a fire incident site back to a base station. Individual robot-sensors developed by the View-Finder project were also designed to operate autonomously within the limits of the task assigned to them.

Robots were developed that could plan their path and avoid obstacles whilst inspecting the area. The idea of the project was also that human operators could monitor the robots' processes and send task requests through easy-to-use controls at the base station.

The project focused on two possible scenarios — indoor and outdoor — with a corresponding robot platform developed for each scenario. The indoor scenario used a robot equipped with two laser range finders, one of which was attached to a tilt unit for providing 3D images. It also featured a front sonar array, a pan-tilt-zoom camera, a long-range wireless communication device and a chemical sensor array.

Two types of chemical sensors were used to detect low concentration and high concentration of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and toxic gases. A quartz crystal microbalance (QCM) sensor array was built to provide a base for pattern recognition of different VOCs, while a metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) sensor was also used.

The outdoor robots needed to be able to deal with a completely unstructured environment, and be capable of navigating autonomously. Another key feature of the outdoor robots was their ability to determine for themselves the suitability of the terrain around them. 'A more robust robot was needed for outdoors,' says Dr Penders. 'Also, the intensity of light is constantly changing outside, which can also complicate things.'

Back to base

The next step of the project was to ensure that data collected by the robots reached the base station as quickly as possible, and could be easily interpreted and acted upon. The bandwidth required for sending sensor data from the robot to the base station was an important consideration, and this was performed by Mailman, a high-performance messaging service offering quality of service for wireless networks. This base station combines gathered information with information retrieved from large-scale GMES ('Global monitoring for environment and security') information bases. The combined data is then transmitted to an operational command point and to first responders, such as the emergency services.

Touch screen interaction methods were developed for the base station. It was foreseen that most of the operator's time would be dedicated to monitoring robot activities resulting in a rather low frequency of user inputs. Sporadic interaction was suited to the nature of touch screen interaction.

'It is important to understand that View-Finder was a research project, and we did not expect to end up with a finished product,' says Dr Penders. 'But while the project as a whole may not be continuing, further research, such as data processing and stereo vision are being developed. We were also approached by the local police in South Yorkshire to take things forward.'

This project illustrates the huge potential of applying robotics to emergency service response. The local police, who use trained dogs in situations where firearms may be used, were interested in finding out if a robotic replacement was feasible.

'The police try to send in a dog with a camera attached to see if fire arms are present,' explains Dr Penders. If they lose a dog, it is expensive, so the South Yorkshire police force was keen on the idea of sending in robots.

'It is not necessarily the case that the robots will perform better, but it is better to lose a robot than a dog. Robotics is making progress, but compared to living beings, there is still a big difference,' concludes Dr Penders.

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