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Experts see humanitarian applications for the next generation of robots.
GENEVA, Switzerland — Robert Richardson has a vision of the future: A long line of trucks wends its way through dangerous territory to bring critically needed supplies to a population in desperate need. What makes these trucks different is that they are guided by robots instead of human drivers.
Richardson, an expert on robotics at the University of Leeds, was briefing humanitarian agencies last summer at a seminar organized by the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College in London. He admits that his vision might not be practical at the moment, but the horizon for robots is changing fast, and he is convinced that there should be a humanitarian component.
The military option, on the other hand, is already being explored. According to Richardson, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, hopes to have a third of the vehicles in the U.S. Army able to operate autonomously by 2015.
“The barriers are mainly financial at this stage,” he said. “All technology costs money.” But Richardson noted that the common automobile is fast turning into what might have been taken to be a robot several decades ago. “It is changing incrementally,” he says. “Rather than an entire autonomous vehicle, they are making individual parts of the car, such as the traction control, autonomous.”
For major disaster situations, a number of smaller robot vehicles are already showing promise. Draganfly, a Canadian company based in Saskatchewan, produces several light UAV (un-manned aerial vehicles) that can carry a small TV camera.
“It looks like a model helicopter,” said Richardson, “but it is more sophisticated. In a humanitarian emergency it could provide a quick aerial view of the surrounding area in order to see the condition of roads and where people are."
The Draganfly, which has just started commercial production, starts at around $15,000. The forensic department of the Ontario Provincial Police used one in a search for evidence in a homicide investigation in a remote area.