How Robots and Drones are Changing Rescue Operations
November 27, 2019      

The people who race to the scene and rescue survivors after disasters are undoubtedly brave as they accept the risks of putting themselves in danger to help others. Sometimes, technology plays a prominent role in making the circumstances less dangerous.

More specifically, here are some examples of how robotics and drones are enhancing rescue operations.

1. Bringing help to victims in flooded areas or bodies of water

Disasters such as floods and hurricanes can complicate rescue efforts. It’s often hard for rescuers to determine the likelihood of finding survivors in the water. In cases where conditions make the water especially rough, they may not want to take chances until they know for sure that survivors need help.

A company called Hydronalix has a product called the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) to assist. A day after Hurricane Dorian hit Abaco Island in the Bahamas, rescue crews used EMILY to reach people who needed supplies. EMILY is a remote-controlled, sonar-equipped water vehicle that can show the underwater debris, which would otherwise make navigation difficult.

Rescuers can also send EMILY directly to someone stranded in the ocean. The boat has handles for victims to grab and pull themselves out of the water.

2. Getting control of wildfires through a safer method

Wildfires are common occurrences for people who live in places like California. However, a worrying trend is that the wildfire season is getting longer, which puts a strain on firefighting crews and increases the likelihood of having trouble getting to victims in time. One method of limiting the damage caused by wildfires is to drop chemicals on them to intentionally start small fires that burn vegetation, and keep wildfires from continuing their rampage.

Nebraska-based company Drone Amplified uses drones to start those intentional fires without the danger. The firm’s representatives say the usual ways are to light those fires by walking through the area on foot, driving through it on a four-wheeler or by using helicopters. A drone called IGNIS offers another alternative that the company says lends itself to nighttime operations.

It’s generally too hazardous to fly a helicopter to set blazes at night, for example, but drones can handle the job with no problems, and they don’t put humans at risk. The fires created during the night help ground crews working the day gain advantages that weren’t possible before.

As professionals manage wildfires more efficiently with help from drones, they can get the area safe enough for rescuers to go and survey the damage, offering assistance to survivors and starting to assess how to promote ongoing recovery efforts for an affected area.

3. Tackling blazes in hard-to-reach places

Tanker trucks are essential vehicles for firefighters, and choosing the right ones often means taking a formulaic approach. For example, before purchasing one, a fire department might calculate things like the number of gallons per minute the tanker should produce, and how far the vehicle would likely be from a water source.

Firefighters still use tanker trucks to douse the flames, but some depend on robots, too. It’s especially useful to take that approach when fires aren’t easily accessible to humans, or if the danger level is too high for people to go in safely.

Fire crews in Abu Dhabi recently began using a robot from an Austrian company called LUF. The machine, known as the LUF 60,  can spray 2,400 liters of water per minute while staying up to 60 meters away from the flames. The specialized piece of equipment can also remove obstacles in its path, make sharp turns and climb stairs.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the LUF 60 could start fighting the fire at its worst. Then, when the conditions become relatively less dangerous, fire professionals could step in and finish the task while looking for survivors.

4. Navigating through confined areas or rubble with snake-like precision

When earthquakes cause buildings to collapse, rescue efforts are typically slow and hazard-filled. Complications crop up when rescuers find debris that blocks their path, which would take time to remove. Or, a catastrophe might cause people to get trapped in tight spaces. When rescuers can’t reach those individuals to assess their needs, rescue efforts slow down.

Sarcos has a snake-inspired robot named the Guardian S. The firm says its bot is ideal for situations involving hazardous materials that might require rescuers to take readings of the environment before deciding whether to send in their teams. Or, it sends real-time information about high-risk efforts above and below ground to people managing the recovery efforts from safer spots. Then, rescuers can be more informed while deciding which actions to take next.

5. Separating survivors from casualties

Since drones fly and can take pictures, they provide aerial perspectives that can help rescue workers decide where to focus their efforts. For example, the photos taken by a drone could be effective in locating survivors. China is among the countries using them for earthquake rescues.

Ireland-based DroneSAR is capitalizing on the potential of drones to find survivors. It offers an iPad app that enhances the rescue-related applications of commercially available drones. For example, the app can create custom grids and direct a drone to only search in those segments. Then, if the drone locates a survivor, the app enables sharing of the person’s location to everyone on a team.

Since the app also allows viewing a drone’s position and its accompanying video feed from anywhere in the world, it suits rescue coordinators who may not be at a disaster site but still play prominent roles in finding the survivors and managing their rescues.

In another example of what’s possible — although this example is not yet commercially available — researchers developed a computer vision attachment for a GoPro Hero 4 drone. It can detect the chest movement that happens as humans breathe. In lab tests, the scientists developing this technology placed humans lying on the ground in various positions among mannequins.

They reported that the computer vision gadget on the drone successfully differentiated between the people and the dummies. The researchers also hope to improve their work so that the drone camera could function while examining individuals wearing camouflage clothing. If that effort pays off, this drone accessory could meet a need in the military sector.

Reaching survivors after a disaster is typically challenging, and it’s frequently hazardous for humans. Thanks to these drone developments, people could get trustworthy information about whether the highest numbers of survivors are, then send rescuers to those places.

Minimizing the threats

There’s no way to entirely remove the dangers that rescuers face. But the robots and drones covered here, as well as other systems, show that such technologies can give relevant, real-time information to the people overseeing the rescue efforts and determining the best ways to deal with a catastrophe and come to the aid of surviving victims.