The robots and their human handlers at the new Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) are ready for action whenever disaster strikes. The robots are equipped with cameras and lights, and can venture into wreckage too dangerous for humans to look for survivors of earthquakes, fires or toxic spills.
Comprising a fleet of seven caterpillar-tracked robots and a team of technicians that includes four search specialists and a doctor, the group is now on call 24 hours a day.
While the robots have been under development for the past few years, they were only put to the test following the terrorist attack on 11 September last year. When Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR, which is based at the University of South Florida in Tampa, heard about the fate of the World Trade Center, she and her colleagues packed up their robots and headed to New York. In the weeks that followed, the robots located the remains of 10 victims.
Since then they have become an active part of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency's operations. Since Ground Zero, some of the robots have been fitted with sensors to help determine whether someone is still alive. So in future, says Murphy, the robots will try to get close to victims and place a blood-oxygen saturation sensor on their skin to detect a pulse. If the robot can't reach them then it will direct heat sensors towards their face and look for slight temperature fluctuations on their nose as an indicator of breathing. Failing that, it will try to detect elevated levels of carbon dioxide near the body. This is vital, says Murphy, "because if you go after someone who turns out to be dead you are wasting rescue time."
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New Scientist issue: 5 October 2002
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