Better robots could help save disaster victims

January 5, 2006 | Source: news service

In the wake of the tragic accident that killed 12 trapped miners in West Virginia, roboticists are saying that a new generation of search-and rescue-robots could help save lives in future disasters.

Howie Choset, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, is working on a robot that can squirm snake-like through small spaces that might be left after a mine or building collapses. He said he and his students look to the way real snakes move for inspiration, and then try to program that movement into their robots. But he estimates that his group is five to seven years away from building a robot dependable enough for real use.

William L Whittaker, also at Carnegie Mellon, is working on robots designed to create detailed maps of the insides of mines using laser rangefinders and other instruments. After an accident, the inside of a mine can be altered radically. Whittaker and colleagues have demonstrated robots that can navigate by themselves through mines, and return with detailed three-dimensional maps of the tunnels.

But he says government and industry are reluctant to fund specific research on search-and-rescue robotics.