Trailblazing Robots to the Rescue

Effort bears witness to birth of star in the aftermath of supernova

They move like mini monster trucks and maneuver like octopi. They climb over piles of rubble, crawl into tiny spaces and fly instantaneously in any direction. They are the newest family of search-and-rescue robots from Professor Richard Voyles’ Collaborative Robotics Lab, and they will be critical to saving lives in disaster situations.

Voyles, a professor of electrical engineering technology, has been developing search-and-rescue robotics technology since his college days when, in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island incident, he decided that “build robots” was the answer to the question, “What would you do in this situation?”

A previous leader for the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative, Voyles now heads the Purdue Robotics Accelerator, a collaboration of more than 50 Purdue faculty across 15 departments.

First deployed to search 9/11 debris, search-and-rescue robots are relatively new to real-time emergency response efforts. “There’s still not a case where a robot has actually found a living survivor. But there have been many cases where a robot has been able to look for survivors where no humans or dogs could go,” Voyles says.

Robots have come a long way since the Twin Towers tragedy. Voyles and his team of 14 undergraduate, master’s and PhD students are testing and perfecting robots with special capabilities that work in tandem. They also draw on innovations from other Purdue robotics researchers, such as robotic “rescue buddies” — developing digitally projected physical avatars to quell a disaster victim’s anxiety and impart critical information about what’s happening.

Voyles’ CRAWLER solves an enormous problem in search-and-rescue scenarios — getting a camera into tiny spaces. Its arms can climb over rocky terrain and manipulate objects that block the camera lens. And its size, just three inches in diameter, saves time.

The CRAWLER is docked in and deployed from Voyles’ MOTHERSHIP robot, which maneuvers quickly over large expanses of debris, like a graceful monster truck inner tube. The Collaborative Robotics Lab technology literally “keeps going up,” says Voyles, “from under the rubble, to on top of the rubble, to flying over the rubble.”

Enter the Dexterous Hexrotor, a sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle UAV. Its six rotors — everyday drones have four — give it the unique ability to move and grab at the same time, and to spring off and exert forces in any direction.

“In a disaster scene, you have a limited number of rescuers, who are not allowed to enter buildings until they’ve been inspected, to see if it is structurally sound,” Voyles says. Structural engineers might not be on hand at disaster sites. “It’s typically a bottleneck,” he says, while FEMA teams and other rescue units wait for clearance to enter. “But the UAV can send pictures to engineers, so you can crowd source in emergency situations much quicker.”

Another benefit is dual use — emergency response plus routine maintenance.

The Dexterous Hexrotor was recently employed in an empty grain silo at Purdue to simulate sampling of potential nuclear contamination at the underground nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, saving the Department of Energy time and millions of dollars.

“Because funds are so depleted, without dual use, it’s really hard to make the business case,” Voyles says. “Ultimately the goal is that FEMA, firefighters and police can use them. The drone that can do structural inspection can also physically inspect old smokestacks before they are demolished, for example.”

Dual use also allows teams to learn how to deploy the robots in many situations, so that teams are trained and ready when disaster strikes, he says.