Now It's Humanitarian Bots?

By William Dowell,
November 2009
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

From amateur helicopter to a versatile spy in the sky

Robots have increasingly attracted the attention of military and police organizations around the world. Could they be just as effective in humanitarian emergencies? Dr. Robert Richardson, who works on robotics at the University of Manchester in England, and recently briefed both NGOs and fellow academics on the possibilities, clearly thinks so. Dr. Richardson points outthat DARPA, the US Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to have one third of the vehicles in the US Army guided by robotsby 2015.

There is always a lag between developing technology to kill people and converting that technology to saving lives, but the surge of interest in automated vehicles should both improve designs and bring costs down. Even then it may be decades before robot-driven transport convoys become affordable to aid groups like the Red Cross or the ICRC, but there are other uses where robots, or autonomous machines, are already proving extremely useful.

One of the most promising areas is in quick aerial surveillance. Draganfly (, a Canadian company based in Saskatchewan, produces several light UAV (un-manned aerial vehicles) that can carry a Canon G9 camera for aerial shots, or a small TV camera. "It looks like a model helicopter," Dr. Richardson explained in a telephone interview, "but it is more sophisticated. In a humanitarian emergency it could provide a quick aerial view of the surrounding area in order to see the condition of roads and where people are. The Draganfly, whichhas just started commercial production, starts at around $15,000. The forensic department of the OntarioProvincial Police used one in a search for evidence in a homicide investigationin a remote area.

Robin Murphy, a US scientist working on humanitarian robots at Texas A&M University, is developing a system that uses very smallhelicopter-borne cameras to photograph a disaster area and then feed the data into a computer program called "Rubble Viewer." The different images are then synthesized into a 3-D model,which enables rescue workers to immediately visualize the entire scene and determine where survivors are likely to be found. The Rubble viewer project has been using a series of extremely small multi-rotor UAVs produced by Air Robot.

Murphy also runs the Center for Robot-Assisted Search andRescue (CRASR), which maintains a rapid response team already equipped with a number of specialized robots for search and rescue work. She operates a blog onrobots in emergency rescue work at
Apart from aerial surveillance, robots have a promising future in worming their way through rubble in order to reach victims trapped by debris. Dr. Richardson points out that early attempts to use robots during the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster ran into trouble when loose debris blocked their path.The most effective use at the time was to dangle the robot from a wire into a hole, relying on its camera for added information. Most robots proved too large to get very far.

Since then, considerable progress has been made and a whole generation of robots have been designed to work like mechanical snakes or caterpillars, that can carry a miniature TV camera deep inside a damaged building. The University of Michigan has developed a caterpillar-like robot, called the omnitread-4, whichcan move through a hole that is only 4" in diameter, and can climb straight up a tiny crawl space, and can operate on its own batteries for more than an hour. Another robot that Dr.Richardson's group is working on resembles a mechanical mole, and has powerful claws that can push rubble aside.

In the stress of an emergency, it is questionable whether anyone has the time to hammer the kinks out of a new technology, and Dr.Richardson points out that one drawback is that using a robot requires training and some expertise, but as the technology evolves it will become increasingly useful.

"The idea is to get people involved in humanitarian issues to start thinking about these things," he says. "We are trying to open doors."

In fact, Dr. Richardson notes that even the common family automobile is becoming increasingly robotized. "It is being done incrementally," he says. "Instead of automating the whole thing at once, small parts of the car, like the traction control, are being made autonomous."

Rosie Oglesby, programme coordinator for the HumanitarianFutures Programme, which hosted the seminar, says that the idea at this stage is to get humanitarian policy makers together with the latest scientific developments. "What we are trying to do," she says, "is to open the planning horizon. It is more about thinking what's out there on the horizon, and what ought to be on your radar. We're opening a dialogue. These organizations need to be able to engage with the experts."