Will a robot be the next great humanitarian?

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.

Robin Murphy, a U.S. scientist working on humanitarian robots at Texas A&M University, is developing a system that uses very small helicopter-borne cameras to photograph a disaster area and then feed the data into a computer program called “Rubble Viewer.” The different images are then synthesized into a 3-D model, which enables rescue workers to immediately visualize the entire scene and determine where survivors are likely to be found. The rubble viewer project has been using a series of extremely small multi-rotor UAVs produced by Air Robot, based in Germany.

Murphy also runs the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASR), which maintains a rapid response team already equipped with a number of specialized robots for search and rescue work.

Apart from aerial surveillance, miniaturized robots have a promising future clawing their way through rubble in order to reach victims trapped by debris after an earthquake or building collapse. Richardson pointed out in his talk that early attempts to use robots after the 9/11 attacks ran into trouble when loose debris blocked their path or they proved too bulky to get very far.

Considerable progress has been made since then and the current generation is beginning to resemble a menagerie of mechanical snakes or caterpillars, agile enough to carry a miniature television camera deep inside a damaged building. The University of Michigan has developed a caterpillar-like robot, called the omnitread-4, which can move through a hole that is only 4 inches in diameter, and can then climb straight up a tiny crawl space. Another robot that Richardson’s group is working on resembles a mechanical mole, and has powerful claws that can push rubble aside.

Convincing the humanitarian world to invest in equipment as expensive as robots might not be easy. “The justification for buying equipment rather than medical supplies might be a little blurred,” Richardson said, “but you have to balance the cost of the equipment against the value of someone’s life.”

“The idea is to get people involved in humanitarian issues to start thinking about these things,” he said. “We are trying to open doors.”

Rosie Oglesby, programme coordinator for the Humanitarian Futures Programme, which hosted Richardson’s seminar in London, said that the idea at this stage is to get humanitarian policy makers together with the latest scientific developments.

“What we are trying to do,” she said, “is to open the planning horizon. It is more about thinking what’s out there on the horizon, and what ought to be on your radar. We’re opening a dialogue. These organizations need to be able to engage with the experts.”