New in Rescue Robots: Survivor Buddy

Rescue robots serve as a trapped disaster victim’s lifeline to the outside world.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Rescue robots serve as a trapped disaster victim’s lifeline to the outside world. But even a good thing can become, well, creepy.

“Robots don’t make eye contact. Their tone doesn’t change. When they get closer to people, they start to violate their personal space,” said Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue of Texas A&M University. “If you are stuck somewhere for 10 hours, and something scares you, or annoys you for long enough, you might start disregarding what it is asking you to do. The term that keeps coming up is ‘creepy.’  People find the robots that are supposed to be helping them creepy.”

Murphy, professor of computer science and engineering, and Clifford I. Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University, are collaborating in an effort to ease the “creep” factor in rescue robots, hoping to reduce anxiety, and enhance existing rescue efforts. The National Science Foundation is funding the three-year project with a $1.2 million grant shared by the two universities as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

There also is an educational outreach component in the plan which includes multi-disciplinary curriculum development, as well as programs for elementary and high school teachers, and museums.

The work will create at least five new research jobs in the short term but, more importantly, the researchers expect it to jump-start a new industry.

“Several of these people will go out and start new companies based on this technology, and students will go out and work for these companies,” Murphy said. “There is a burgeoning emergency response market--think about Haiti. We need more technology that is helpful for these situations. We are creating more knowledgeable people, and encouraging them to go into this sector.”  

Rescue robots have been used for more than a decade, but the early prototypes were mechanically primitive. “The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the earthquake in Kobe (Japan) created a great interest in rescue robots,” Murphy said. “These events served as motivation to start focusing on rescue robots. But they weren’t ready to go into the field until 1999.”

The researchers hope to improve the devices in ways that will make them more valuable to law enforcement, such as hostage negotiation, as well as in emergency response situations, where they already are in use. The robots also have potential in the health care setting, where the researchers believe they could huge economic potential.

The current project, also supported by Microsoft, will create a multi-media “head” attachment called the “survivor buddy” that can fit on any traditional robot and serve as the interface between trapped victims and the rest of the world for the ten or more hours it might take to extract them.  An animator from Pixar, the company involved in such popular films as “Wall-E” and “Up,” has volunteered to help design the motions.

The “survivor buddy” will be designed with features that will allow victims to engage in two-way video-conferencing, watch the news and listen to music. The media component emerged following a 2005 mine accident--not involving rescue robots--but where trapped miners asked if workers could lower them an MP3 player. “We know people get bored,” Murphy said.  “These miners got tired of talking to responders on the other side.”

The survivor buddy prototype was completed last summer, but hasn’t yet been used in a disaster. It is a new robot head that the researchers hope will be able to perform any web-based activity, as well as two-way video conferencing, and play music and television, among other things. It also will be more user-friendly, hopefully making it less creepy.

“The head will constantly maintain gaze control with you, always maintaining eye contact,” Murphy said. “Social gaze is important. Another important thing is the motions - we want it to move more slowly when it’s close to you.”  The scientists also plan to adjust the volume so that the device speaks more softly the closer it gets to a victim, she said.