Robotics technology looks close to meeting yet another challenge as academic engineers have created a system that enables robots to distinguish people from other objects and surroundings. One intended use is to assist rescue workers coping with an emergency or disaster.
A team of researchers from the University of Guadalajara (UDG) in Mexico, led by Nancy Guadalupe Arana Daniel at the UGC Center of Exact and Engineering Sciences, have invented a system that allows robots to learn to recognise human beings. The neural network they have developed enables a small robot to identify patterns such as bodies, faces, fingerprints, handwriting, voice frequencies and even DNA sequences. The initial goal is that the robot will be able to recognise human silhouettes in disaster situations. These advances look set to open up new avenues for robot use and development.
The scenario which Arana Daniel and her colleagues have been working on is that of a compact robot, equipped with a flashlight and a stereoscopic camera, taking pictures of the surrounding area and then applying a computational algorithm in order to distinguish between the silhouettes of people and objects in the vicinity, such as debris. Their robot, which can be controlled wirelessly by a rescue team, is equipped with a friction-crawler-based drive system similar to the one used in military tanks, which is suited to moving around in all types of terrain. Their intention is that it will be able to find accident casualties among the rubble in the aftermath of a disaster.
This is of course not the first time scientists have harnessed robotics to assist rescue teams. In 2007 the University of Southampton developed a robot coordination system for use in emergency situations. And robot helicopters are also now being used in disaster zones. Last year Boston Dynamics launched Atlas, an ‘Agile Anthropomorphic Robot’ primarily designed to be able to perform rescue activities in areas known to be radioactive.
Nevertheless, the UDG team’s robot has one or two novel features. As it is very small, it should be able to squeeze its way into otherwise inaccessible areas and locate disaster victims trapped in the rubble, something which up to now no robot has ever managed to do. This would be of great assistance to rescue personnel at the scene.
Meanwhile, San Francisco-based inventor Greg Henderson has recently invented a skateboard that floats just above ground. If this ‘hoverboard’, as he calls it, seems to be a gimmicky gizmo far removed from the subject of disaster rescue capability, it is worth pointing out that the inventor intends to apply the same magnetic levitation principle to larger structures. The idea is that buildings could be constructed on a magnetic-levitation platform which could help them resist earthquakes and enable them to rise above mounting flood waters. However, for the moment at least, there seems little prospect that floating buildings will render the practical services of the Mexican rescue robot obsolete, except in futuristic movies.