January 19, 2012      

Imagine the scene: A trio of terrorists is holed up in a hotel room, holding a group of terrified staff hostage. Outside, the SWAT team gathers. One of the members pulls a pin from an object and tosses it onto the room’s balcony, where it rolls to the sliding glass door.

Moments later, chaos erupts. Commandos burst into the room through a side door, surprising the terrorists and freeing their captives. No, the object on the balcony wasn’t a grenade, it was a miniature unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), and the images it transmits have the power to save lives.

When it comes to search-and-rescue robots, the philosophy today is, the smaller, the better. It’s unlikely that even the most sophisticated robot can do a more effective job than a person at pulling victims from rubble or picking up a downed soldier.

A UGV like the Recon Scout IR from ReconRobotics Inc. in Edina, Minn., can easily and unobtrusively slip into a collapsed building or a hostage situation where a person can’t and send back real-time images that allow responders to identify a tactical response.

Although it looks for all the world like a small dumbbell, the Scout can climb uneven terrain, navigate a path as commanded, and send back a steady stream of images, all while operating without a tether (see figure 1). Using sophisticated design, robust materials, and compact, high-torque servomotors from Micromo to build the device, ReconRobotics has positioned itself as a major player in the search-and-rescue robot market.

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