What do Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, and the World Trade Center attacks all have in common? Obvious tragedy aside, the common factor in each of these disasters is the use of robots to assist first responders in rescue and cleanup missions. Robotics technology has evolved exponentially over the last two decades, along with the potential to save victims of disaster faster with decreased risk to first responders and other rescue personnel.
A research team at UMass Lowell led by Dr. Holly Yanco, founder of the UMass Robotics Lab and director of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center, have been awarded four grants totaling more than $1 million toward the development and study of robotics for use in rescue and damage assessment, as well as improving mobility and increasing independence for the elderly or disabled. At a time when science and technology experts around the globe, including notable names such as Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk, are speaking out against the dangers of implementing weaponized artificial intelligence, Yanco’s team are driving research in the opposite direction and looking for ways to improve and save human lives.
The grants awarded will fund research and development in four areas of robotics: improving communication and assessment between robots and control centers in disaster situations, educating rescue personnel in the best methods for using robots in the field, research in robotics for mobile manufacturing, and research and development on low-cost robotic arms to assist and improve mobility for the physically disabled.
The researchers are utilizing a wide variety of devices in their research that are available to the public, such as Google Glass and touchscreen laptops and tablets. In the future, this may lead to technology that could be integrated with pre-existing resources for disaster-response teams. One of the most interesting areas of study will be the progress made toward using robots to create a 3D map of disaster sites to better prepare rescue crews and allow command centers to create fully developed action plans in shorter spans of time.