Mining companies spend billions of dollars ensuring the safety and security of their sites. Thanks to modern engineering practices, serious incidents are rare in today’s mines, but accidents can happen and when they do it isn’t only the workers trapped inside the mine who are in danger—rescue teams also face major hazards attempting to locate and extract them.
Poisonous gas, explosives, falling structures and landslides are just some of the obstacles rescue workers have to contend with when they respond to a mining emergency. Safety researchers are always looking for better ways to keep people out of harm’s way and one of the most effective tools available to rescue teams in this high-tech era are robots.
Rescue robots have been around in their simplest form since the 1970’s. One of the first successful robots of this type—endearingly known as ‘The Wheelbarrow’—was devised by a retired British Army Colonel in 1972. The Wheelbarrow was designed to approach and disable car bombs so that soldiers could keep a safe distance.
The earliest versions of the Wheelbarrow robot were crude radio controlled devices built on lawnmower chassis, but the rescue robots of today are highly sophisticated machines with the ability to operate in extremely difficult conditions.
The majority of contemporary rescue robots follow the same basic format as the Wheelbarrow. They have a compact low profile chassis for maximum stability and a variety of sensors that help to detect hazards. Their primary function is to enter disaster areas and relay information back to rescue coordinators so they can assess the danger before sending human rescuers into the situation
One of the current leaders in the rescue robot industry is the ‘Gemini Scout’, developed by Sandia Laboratories in The US. Sandia is operated by Lockheed Martin, an innovator of military and industrial robotics.
The Gemini Scout mine rescue robot is equipped with front and back driving cameras so the operator can steer it around obstacles. It also has a high definition infrared camera mounted above the chassis that enables it to see more clearly in low light conditions, even through dust and smoke. Because the Gemini’s main camera is infrared sensitive, in very dark or obscured conditions it can identify the bodies of trapped casualties by their heat signature. Mounted beside the infrared camera are a powerful flashlight and a atmospheric sensor unit which detects poisonous fumes and explosive gasses in the air.
The Gemini is deployed ahead of human rescue teams, giving them an opportunity to avoid unnecessary danger. If the Gemini reaches trapped people ahead of the team, they can communicate with the rescue workers via a two way radio that is built into the robot.
Sandia have designed the Gemini robot to be able to get through water, clamber over piles of rubble and negotiate uneven ground. The key feature of the Gemini that makes it so unstoppable is it’s articulated chassis. The robot is constructed with a universal joint in the middle, so the front and back halves of it’s frame can tilt in opposite directions without destabilising it. This feature along with it’s low geared drive train make it able to climb very steep slopes even on loose gravel or muddy ground.
The Gemini robot can be equipped with oxygen, water and first aid supplies for immediate use by victims, and because it is so ruggedly built it can even be used to drag immobilised casualties clear of dangerous areas.
The DARPA Challenge
The limitation of contemporary rescue robots like the Gemini is that they don’t have much ability to interact with their surroundings. They can be deployed into a scene and relay information back to operators, but if there are obstacles like closed doors and ladders that they can’t get past and if they encounter damaged infrastructure like leaking hoses they have no ability to make temporary repairs like a human rescue worker could. Inevitably, that means human rescuers still need to go into danger zones themselves to overcome problems that robots can’t handle. Tasks like treating victim’s injuries, breaching doors and clearing rubble still have to be done by people, so rescuers are still exposed to serious risk.
DARPA (The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) is dedicated to developing robot technology to keep rescuers out of the most hazardous situations altogether.
In 2012 DARPA launched the ‘Robotics Challenge’, a four year competitive event conceived to encourage research into more effective rescue robots. The goals of the DARPA challenge were extremely ambitious to say the least. Entrants to the competition were challenged to design a robot that could operate on uneven terrain, climb ladders, use standard rescue tools and drive a car. The robots in the challenge had to be able to operate in the same conditions and spaces that a human rescuer would and be capable of doing their work independently. DARPA’s ultimate goal was a robot close enough to human form and ability that it could actually take the place of a human rescuer.
In 2012 those were seemingly impossible goals, but DARPA was offering a multi-million dollar prize to successful entrants, so the most advanced research teams in the world set to work coming up with solutions.
The majority of robots that took part in the DARPA Challenge flunked out. In the majority of cases the problem was basic stability. The robots fell over so many times during the events that it became a running joke. ‘Atlas’, a finalist and one of the most widely publicised humanoid robots in the competition famously completed all the stages of the finals and then fell over while waving to the crowd.
Is Hubo the future?
At the completion of the contest none of the DARPA Challenge robots was even close to being able to take the place of a human rescuer. The DARPA challenge was a huge success though, in the sense that it propelled humanoid robotics research forward in leaps and bounds.
After four years of research, refinement and elimination, the DARPA challenge was won by a robot called ‘Hubo’. This robot is a glimpse into the future of rescue technology.
With legs, arms and fingers, Hubo is very person-like in appearance.
Built by the Korean research institute KAIST, Hubo was one of the few robots to successfully complete all the trials of the DARPA challenge without breaking down. Hubo was able to drive a Polaris ATV, open a conventional door, traverse stairs, drill through a concrete wall using normal power tools and walk across a debris field of broken concrete to claim the line honors. This incredible feat represented four years of engineering and countless hours of programming by the research team at KAIST.
The final round of the DARPA challenge that launched Hubo to international robot celebrity was a laborious, painstaking affair. It took Hubo and the other robots in the competition between forty-five minutes and several hours to complete the simple tasks, with many eliminations due to malfunction, software failure, and plain old falling down.
The resounding lesson from the DARPA challenge was that one of the biggest challenges to designing humanoid robots is keeping them on their feet. If a robot falls over in a rescue situation there’s nobody around to run over and set it upright. Wheels may be clumsy but they have the big advantage of stability.
Hubo and the other finalists of the DARPA challenge are still in ongoing development and growing in sophistication year by year, but it’s unlikely that robots will take the place of human rescue crews in the near future. The technology developed for the DARPA challenge has revolutionary potential, but for now the machines that continue to go into harm’s way and save human lives will be the squat, unglamourous robots like Gemini. They don’t have much intelligence or human-like limbs but they are reliable, and that counts for a lot in the disaster rescue scene.