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The little robot that could

Search-and-rescue robot climbing on rubble

The TerminatorBot may aid in search-and-rescue efforts. Photo: Michael Richmond

You wouldn’t expect Hollywood action flick characters to be role models for engineers. But when DU Associate Professor Richard Voyles set out to build a search-and-rescue robot, he turned to the sci-fi classic Terminator. In the movie’s famous last scene, a humanoid robot begins to crawl with just its arms after its legs were blown off in an explosion. Even though Voyles’ TerminatorBot looks nothing like the movie android, it is based on the same principle.

The soda-can-size machine is a two-armed torso that uses its limbs to move its body as well as to pick things up and move them out of its way. The lack of legs keeps the robot small enough to access spaces where humans or search dogs can’t go — such as structures that collapse after an earthquake or other disaster.

“You can insert this robot into a void and let it crawl through the debris to look for survivors who are trapped in there,” Voyles says.

But the ability to search for victims is not enough; rescue robots have to be able to determine whether a victim is alive, a task that is quite difficult with just cameras, Voyles explains. That’s why collaborators at the NSF Center for Safety, Security and Rescue Research are developing a “triage sensor” that could be built into the TerminatorBots. These detectors can measure a person’s blood pressure and sniff out different gases: Oxygen levels in the vicinity of a breathing person are low while carbon dioxide levels are elevated.

“Equipped with the triage sensor, the TerminatorBot would be able to zero in on entombed victims by measuring the gas content in the air and could then confirm that they are alive by measuring their blood pressure,” Voyles explains.

But the TerminatorBot’s potential reaches far beyond Earthly life. The gadgets could also help in the exploration of other planets by characterizing the extraterrestrial terrain. Voyles and his team found a way to extract information about the surface their TerminatorBots were crawling on by measuring the bounce that their bodies experienced.

“It’s important to know what the surface of a foreign planet looks like before sending expensive vehicles up there,” he says. “You wouldn’t want NASA rovers that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to accidentally fall into a crater they didn’t know about.” TerminatorBots, only a few thousand dollars apiece, could roam around the landscape and allow scientists to create detailed maps that include soil analyses.

Voyles and his team of five graduate students have so far designed four different TerminatorBot types that vary in the design of their limbs. For example, some have limbs resembling human fingers and some have scissor-like claws similar to those of a lobster.

“They each have different capabilities, so we could send out a whole army of them and have them perform different tasks and even help each other. Together they can be very versatile. That’s what makes them so great.”

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