New Tech Could Help Search Wreckage

The effort to develop search and rescue robots was launched in earnest following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Blitch helped out in that rescue effort, and that convinced him that research sponsored by the Department of Defense could help in the development of new tools to help future rescues.

He was in a position to know. As a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's funding arm for far-out projects, he had funded research on miniature robotics for military reconnaissance.

He began funding civilian research projects, including Murphy's, and that has led to some pretty innovative thinking in the field of robotics.

Howie Choset, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, has been working for some time now on an articulated snake that could worm its way into the debris left by a natural or human-caused disaster.

He's made some progress, but much more will be needed if his strange-looking beast is ever to be useful. It looks like a metallic snake, with joints that allow it to work its way into very tight spaces.

The prototype built in his lab, however, can't move like a real snake, partly because it is tethered to a mobile platform.

"It's sort of like an elephant," he says.

Like an elephant's trunk, the snake dangles off the face of the platform, so its reach is not very long. He is working now on rescue snakes that would be completely autonomous, thus allowing them to penetrate deep within a disaster area. Enormous technological challenges lie ahead, however, in the development of devices that will be mobile and robust enough to work in such a difficult environment.

It's worth a try, he says, because it could mean the difference between life and death.

"Just locating a victim and saying 'hey, help is on the way,' could save lives right there," he says. "And if you can get him food, water and oxygen, that's icing on the cake."

Meanwhile, mechanical engineering professors Michael Goldfarb and Ephrahim Garcia of Vanderbilt University have developed tiny, insect-like robots about a third the size of a credit card.

These ingenious devices can climb through rubble, like real insects, carrying sensors to detect such things as explosives, and infrared sensors that could reveal the presence of life, or tiny cameras to send back images of a disaster scene. They are being developed for the military, but could have an application in search and rescue as well.

The goal of all these research programs is the same — to send in mechanical devices where it might be too hazardous, or too inaccessible, for human rescuers. They will, however, never be anything more than tools.

"No matter how good these things are at getting into confined spaces, they aren't going to pick somebody up and pull them out of there," Blitch says. "That's too complex a task for a machine. It requires a lot of adaptive, intuitive types of behavior that are just beyond the machine world."

But maybe, just maybe, they might lift some of the burden from those very tired shoulders we've all seen working in the dust and the rubble where twin towers once stood.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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