Emergency Response Teams Combine Mobile Robots, Drones, and Dogs

Dogs with cyber suits team up with ground and air rescue robots

2 min read
Emergency Response Teams Combine Mobile Robots, Drones, and Dogs
Photo: Alper Bozkurt/North Carolina State University

No matter how much time and energy and money we put into a robot, it's going to be a very very very long time before we come up with anything that's anywhere close to as capable as a dog. From a robotics perspective, dogs are utterly amazing: they're fast, efficient, able to cover all sorts of terrain, can understand both verbal and gestural commands, and they run on dog food.

Dogs do have some limitations: they can't move rubble, and they're not that great at flying, either. Robots can do these things, but in a disaster scenario, the key is getting all these different pieces (robots, dogs, humans, and anything else) to work together in a coherent way. 

The Smart Emergency Response System (SERS) is trying to make this work, using a combination of  "ground and aerial autonomous vehicles, drones, humanoids, human-operated telerobots, and trained search-and-rescue dogs equipped with real-time sensors" to save as many lives as possible in an emergency.

The project involves a number of organizations, including North Carolina State University, MathWorks, University of Washington, MIT, BluHaptics, National Instruments, University of North Texas, Boeing, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Image: SERS

This may be one of the most charmingly terrible graphics I've ever seen, but I like how it shows an ATLAS with what I think might be a dog next to it, and we all know how well dogs and robots get along.

Anyway, the SERS system combines whatever kinds of communications are available (Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth, etc.) to connect autonomous and semi-autonomous robots with a centralized command center.

Photo: Alper Bozkurt/North Carolina State University

The dogs are intended to be an integral part of this system, and they're being outfitted with modular "cybernetic suits" that can be rigged up with a variety of sensors depending on the situation.

The suits also monitor the dogs themselves, sending back their heart rates so that their handlers can make sure that they're doing okay. It works in the other direction, too, with speakers on the vests relaying vocal commands, and embedded tactile systems providing gentle nudges to steer the dogs remotely.

The idea of having dogs work closely with robots is an interesting one: dogs have successfully carried and deployed snake robots by themselves, and we're curious to see how far this level of interaction can be extended.

[ SERS ] via [ North Carolina State University ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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