Jan. 25, 2014 at 4:37 AM ET
Robots that can buzz, whir, and clamber into some of the most dangerous crime scenes and disaster zones are coming to the aid of police officers and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way.
In October 2013, a parolee barricaded himself in a Roseville, Calif., suburban home of a young couple and their toddler, taking mother and child hostage. A SWAT team from the local police station captured the alleged offender and took him in, but not before gunfire ripped through the one-story home and injured officers.
Law enforcement officers on the ground had help from bomb squad robots, that helped push aside the furniture the suspect had piled up as a barricade. But two detectives believe that a bit of unmanned aerial backup would have made a big difference.
“Just knowing what’s going on inside a house that we would go into cold — [we could] potentially save officers’ lives and victims’ lives,” Phil Mancini, a detective on the Roseville police desk, told NBC News. Mancini has been advising a group at Carnegie Mellon University that is building a swarm of cheap, small flying helicopters that could come to the aid of officers across the country who find themselves facing off against suspects they can’t always see.
A crew of ten rotors would move and think one, as if a single robot was “chopped into pieces with a knife,” said Pei Zhang, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. Technology being developed at Zhang's lab will allow tens of robots to explore different parts of a new environment and make sense of the information they each collect.
“I can see the thing deployed almost on every call, every type of EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) or SWAT call,” Pat Zeri, the bomb squad commander at Roseville in charge of the robots. His ground robots are useful, sure, but they’re slow to get moving, and if the robot has a problem, “there’s a 900 pound block of metal for the SWAT team to negotiate around.”
Zhang says robotic insects like the RoboBee from the Wyss Institute at Harvard or cyborg beetles that carry sensors on their backs could be future foot soldiers in a networked system, crawling into a burning building to find the hottest zones, or using motion sensors to locate a missing person.
Small drones, flying solo, have helped first responders in exactly these ways. In May last year, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police used a quadcopter carrying an infrared camera to find an injured person after his car flipped over in the snow in Saskatchewan. In Grand Forks County, North Dakota, the sheriff’s office used drones last season to check on flooded farms. The Mesa County Sheriff’s office in Colorado regularly sends their camera-equipped Draganflyer X6 and a slightly larger Falcon on missions, and the bots have helped locate missing people, and assisted firefighters by surveying a burning church.
Drones can cut costs and help emergency responders be more efficient, said Benjamin Miller, the director of Mesa County’s unmanned aircraft program. Miller has testified before Senate committees on the responsible use of robotic technology for law enforcement.
With a swarm of bots on hand, “I can't think of a reason why remote sensors in hazardous situations would not be useful,” he told NBC News, but added that such a system must be easy to deploy, and simple to maintain.
Say, throw ‘em into the air, and let them soar? That’s the approach one group aof researchers in Switzerland is taking in building a swarm of cheap fixed-wing drones that clump together like a flock of mechanical birds.
For rescue workers combing the Swiss mountainside for lost hikers, keeping in touch with one another is a challenge. With this in mind, the Swiss government contacted Dario Floreano, a roboticist at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, to ask if his swarms of flying robots could set up an instant communication net, sort of like an instant local Wifi network, that could hover high over the rescue mission and keep the people on the ground connected.
“The idea was you’d throw up one robot after the other and they would organize among themselves,” said Sabine Hauert, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She used design principles from flocking birds, which use a “couple of simple rules” to stick together as a group and not crash into each other.
Hauert’s system was tested in open fields, with ten drones. The system is being developed to be used in denser, more congested environments like cities.
On the sea, on the land, in the air
A project headed up at the University of Pennsylvania hopes to redesign standardized shipping containers so that they can click together like LEGO blocks, forming bridges, helipads, runways, and other much-needed temporary infrastructure as relief workers arrive at disaster zones. The blocks could provide landing bases for responders at a quake-hit island or oil spill on the open ocean.
The containers, which today sit perfectly still, would be equipped with motors and on-board computers that will let hundreds of them quickly arrange themselves into temporary, useful structures.
“It’s going to be much faster than building an offshore platform,” said Mark Yim, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
In demonstrations using mock-ups one-twelfth the size of real-life containers, researchers have demonstrated how the bots can be used to build bridges across a university pool, form a landing pad for a remote-control helicopter, and simulated how the structures would respond to the crash of waves in a turbulent sea.
“The algorithms of who moves where and when, to form a large conglomeration of even hundreds of them, is almost there,” said Yim, who will present the system for the first time at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong in June 2014.
Eventually, Yim says, it could be possible to assemble a temporary airstrip on the open ocean. He agrees, that’s kind of a “crazy” idea – but may well be possible in the not too distant future.