Humanitarian Robots

Drone strikes and the moral turbidity they incite have been hot international topics this year. Advancements in drone technology are happening more quickly than our understanding of their potential. The U.S. war on terrorism has become dominated by precision drone strikes, and other countries like Iran and China are quickly developing their own drones to counter. Stealth reconnaissance, missile guidance, and bomb delivery are just some of the ways Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are being used in combat to improve military power. Yet, the expanding technology can be used for more than just warfare, and, in the future, UAVs could potentially save more lives than they destroy.

Drones have a couple of advantages over humans in the exploration of dangerous areas in that they are both expendable and as resilient as you choose to make them. While many people are known for having thick skin, metal and high-density plastics are tougher. In Costa Rica, the Dragon Eye UAV successfully travelled into the plume of an active volcano. Obviously, going inside a volcano would be incredibly dangerous, but just getting close has proven difficult for scientists due to the toxic sulfuric ash, high temperatures, and ash and smoke clouds that can stretch for miles. Understanding more about how they erupt will lead an increased ability to predict eruptions and allow for earlier, more accurate warnings.

Smoke from forest and brush fires is just as harmful to human lungs and seriously obstructs vision. In 2012, just 13 people died from wildfires in the U.S., but over 2,000 homes were destroyed. Many of those who die each year are the firefighters who attempt to control these fires. Fireflight Unmanned Aircraft Systems has developed a lightweight UAV to assist firefighters that uses infrared cameras to locate people in danger and track the path of fires.

Natural disasters present other dangers to rescue teams than fire and smoke. Floods, typhoons, and earthquakes can level structures and make roadways impassable. UAVs are perfect for rescue missions into inhospitable areas like these. After being frustrated at the amount of time it took to locate and help survivors of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, Shane Coughlan developed OpenRelief to create affordable drones that could map disaster areas in real-time and better facilitate relief efforts. The drones will cost no more than $1,000 to make commercially and offer upgradeable sensor systems to customize for the needs of the disaster.

Perhaps the most innovative and amazing use of robots for disaster relief comes from a group led by Vijay Kumar at Penn State University. A team there has developed automated micro-UAV’s that can work in tandem to perform herculean tasks. Weighing less than ten ounces and with a diameter of 50 centimeters, these fully automated robots can map areas without GPS, lift hundreds of pounds in teams, maneuver through obstacles without guidance, and even construct basic structures, to name only a few of their capabilities. Getting help to those in disaster areas is becoming faster and easier as UAV design moves away from the battlefield.

– Tyson Watkins
Sources: TG Daily, USA Today, Linux Magazine, TED, Popular Mechanics, International Symposium on Robotics Research 2011, FireFlight Unmanned Aircraft Services