Public Release: 

Testing rescue robots at arenas around the globe

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Opportunities for major strides in robotic search and rescue technology should advance in December when Italy opens a year-round, robot-testing arena in Rome. The arena, patterned after one created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), simulates conditions in collapsed buildings. The Rome facility duplicates arenas already fabricated in the United States and Japan. Two more robot arenas based on the NIST design are scheduled to open next year in Germany and Portugal.

The arenas host "RoboCupRescue," an international robotic search and rescue team competition designed to advance robot rescue capabilities. Researchers also use the arenas to perform robot experiments and support collaboration between organizations. Like real collapsed buildings, all the arenas include sections that range in difficulty from level, uncluttered surfaces to areas that require stair climbing and navigation among "pancaked" floors and rubble.

The next RoboCupRescue event is scheduled for Lisbon in June, 2004. Revised competition rules and improved ways to measure robot performance should increase the relevance of such events for real emergencies. For example, new limitations on robot-human radio communications better reflect real disaster conditions in which frequencies are usually overloaded with emergency communications and structural debris often interferes with transmission. Multiple sensor identifications of simulated "victims" also are now encouraged and false positive identifications, that in real life would jeopardize rescuers, are penalized. To comply, teams are adding sensors for body heat and other signs of life (body movement), sound (moaning, tapping) and carbon dioxide (breathing). Sensors that can detect human urine and sweat as well as hazards such as gas leaks are also under development.

During these international competitions, both NIST and National Science Foundation-funded researchers videotape the robots and operator interfaces to identify "best in class" algorithms, sensors, and mechanisms. They also gather information from robot operators to help in continuing to refine robot performance measures.

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