Robots to the Rescue? Depends on the Humans

Imagine being trapped in a collapsed building. Lying there, conscious, you hear the rubble moving around you. When you finally get a look at your approaching rescuer, you’re a little surprised: it’s about two feet tall and made of metal. You’ve just met a search and rescue robot. Are you relieved? Worried? Both?

Search and rescue robots have been used since 9/11 in the aftermath of natural disasters and building collapses, led by the efforts of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search And Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University. While they have definite benefits, such as being able to get into spaces that human or canine rescuers might find too difficult or dangerous to reach, they’re currently expensive and complicated to use. Dr. Julie Adams, a professor at Vanderbilt who studies human-robot interactions, says that using robots in search and rescue usually requires the presence of maybe four human experts to one robot, making the cost of using robots relatively major compared to the benefit they provide.

Currently, only one robot is used at a time in these sorts of missions, but some researchers have thought about using multiple robots that could collaborate to accomplish a task. For example, smaller robots can’t rescue a person by themselves, but what if they work together? Here’s a video of robots doing just that to pull a child across the floor.

However, the more robots you have, the more difficult they are to control and to monitor their feedback, Adams says. So this kind of robot rescue could be difficult to orchestrate in practice. Moreover, despite the nonchalant and even bored expression of the girl in the above video, it could be pretty terrifying for someone in a stressful situation to be approached by that many robots. Adams characterizes a typical response: “Not only have I been blown up, but now I’m getting attacked by robots!”

But robots may yet save human lives in a slightly different arena. Adams and her research group have been studying robots as partners for human first responders in situations like inspecting bomb threats. In the test scenario, the researchers assigned some tasks to the two-foot-tall robot and some to the human. The robot was good at identifying objects in its field of view, like a suspicious backpack, while the human could work with the robot by, for example, looking inside a trash can that was too tall for the robot. These kinds of studies could use current technologies to find a useful and cost-effective way to deploy robots and help humans in dangerous situations by optimizing the robots for human interaction.

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