Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Engineering professor sends robots to the rescue

Years from now, robots the size of soda cans will crawl through the rubble after a disaster to find trapped people. 

The robots will search for survivors by sensing carbon dioxide and oxygen. They’ll measure the respiration, oxygenation, temperature and pulse of the people they find and then transmit that information to human rescuers.

And it will be because of Richard Voyles, an associate professor in DU’s engineering department. Voyles has spent the past eight years building CRAWLERs — Cylindrical Robots for Autonomous Walking and Lifting during Emergency Response. 

Oddly enough, Voyles and his team have nicknamed the lifesaving robots “TerminatorBots.” The name comes from a famous scene in the 1984 movie Terminator, in which a robot loses its legs and begins using its arms to move.

“It’s dragging the rest of its body behind,” Voyles explains. “And that’s exactly what the TerminatorBot does.” 

Voyles realized that if a robot could use the same appendages to both move itself and grab items, then it could be smaller. And a robot that drags itself requires much less energy than a standing robot because it doesn’t need to support its own weight.

The TerminatorBot is small and nimble enough to fit through narrow gaps in rubble, and it can grasp and move bits of debris that block its path. Each robot carries multiple cameras and sensors that transmit information to human handlers.

Voyles has tested prototype robots in training simulations, but he says it will be years before TerminatorBots can be used in real emergencies.

“They’re rather sophisticated devices, and they’re still somewhat fragile,” Voyles says. “They need to be hardened quite a bit more.”

The robots also need more autonomy to be effective. Right now, Voyles explains, “robots aren’t very smart on their own.” They function as remote eyes and ears for their human handlers, who operate them by remote control. It’s difficult for even the best-trained user to remotely guide a robot through the chaos of a wrecked building. 

The best solution is for the robots to find their own way. 

“We want to make them more autonomous, so they can wander around the rubble by themselves,” Voyles says.

For photos and video of TerminatorBots in action, see Voyles’ Web site.

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