Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Robots as First Responders

Rescue robots can help in incidents like last week's Sago Mine disaster in
West Virginia, says roboticist William "Red" Whittaker.

By Tom Mashberg

William L. "Red" Whittaker is director of the Field Robotics Center and
founder of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh. His expertise includes developing robots for
hazardous duty and for performing 3-D mapping and remote sensing in
environments such as coal mines and volcanoes.

Soon after a near-fatal mine disaster at Quecreek, PA, in mid-2002 (in which
nine miners using an outdated map mistakenly broke through a rock wall,
flooding their tunnel), interest grew in his center's subterranean robotics
and its mapping capabilities. A prototype machine they'd built, an
autonomous, four-wheeled robot with heavy-duty tires, called Groundhog, was
sent into an abandoned coal mine near Pittsburgh in May 2003, and was able
to create accurate three-dimensional maps of its surroundings. It proved the
ability of a robot to map the rooms, pillars, and corridors left by
generations of mining.

In the aftermath of the January 2 disaster at the Sago Mine in West
Virginia, which cost the lives of 12 miners, Technology Review asked
Whittaker to discuss the possible role of robots in aiding and rescuing
miners. Whittaker did not discuss the specifics of the Sago disaster, but
instead spoke about the potential of underground rescue robotics.

Technology Review: What could robots do in mine rescue situations?

Red Whittaker: First, it's important to realize that, although the
technologies exist, robots are not yet certified or deployed as standard
tools in mine rescue today.

Rescue robots in the future will certainly enter mines -- under the unknown
conditions of dust and gas and inundation and roof fall -- and will be
crucial for exploring and characterizing conditions and reporting back to
command centers. They can carry gas sensors that characterize the atmosphere
of a mine. Typically, they would deploy two of those sensors on each machine
to make sure there is no mistake in the instruments.

Once robots have the capability to get in and get around, they could also
provide communications and visual and map sensing, deliver objects to aid
trapped people, like oxygen tanks, and detect vital life signs.

TR: What is the state of the technology?

RW: The state-of-the-art technology for automated navigation in a mine -­ a
robot sensing and planning and driving and getting from point A to B,
knowing where it is, and staying out of trouble, and getting back to an
egress point -- is pretty well understood. Further, robots can carry sensors
that would alert people to the presence of methane gas or poisonous air.
Also, in most mine accident response scenarios, there is a prior map -- that
is tremendous information for a robot and a rescue crew.

TR: So robot locomotion in a mine is practicable?

RW: In a mine there are corridors and intersections and walls and floors and
a roof -- for a robot's navigation and reasoning that's a lot of
information. But it's still a lot different than sending a robot into
rush-hour traffic, for instance, to head two miles across town. A mine is a
relatively simple world for a robot because it is uncluttered by many
unanticipated items. In an office building there is far more complexity and
clutter -- desks, water coolers, signs, and people. So a mine is an amenable
environment for a robotic device designed for simple navigation.

There is no fundamental barrier to good locomotion or moving through mine
conditions or getting command and control via that robot or appending sense
detectors or illumination devices or scanners. So useful rescue response
robots could be specialized and deployed in the near term -- there's no leap
of physics or big missing piece of technology for machines that could move
quickly and effectively in mines.

TR: What will it take to deploy rescue robots?

RW: All the things that help any technology develop: market forces,
political pressure, humanitarian impulses, and teams committed to the
challenge. Five years ago the technologies would not have been competent for
or capable of mine mapping; but after Quecreek there was a motivation for
progress. The great strides in mine mapping since then are powered by
resources that were a response to what was viewed as a shortfall -- a need.
It didn't just come to pass that old pencil-drawn maps of mines were
digitized, it became a necessity. There was a political, business, and
humanitarian impulse at work that led to the creation and deployment of
robotics to map mines, to promote the safety and health of the people in the

After Sago, the charter might be for capabilities to enter mines robotically
in accident conditions and traverse and obtain information and get to
trapped miners and deliver what's needed to them.

TR: Do you think that will happen?

RW: Twenty years ago this would all have been science fiction; but now it is
a matter of integrating all the existing systems. Robots are now a tool of
the trade for bomb squads. Ten years ago we wouldn't have been talking about
that as a reality. So the issue is no longer whether the technology will
work, but of culture, policy, economics, and initiative. Every technology
has to earn its keep -- it's not an entitlement. I believe that mine rescue
response is one application where robots would inevitably make good sense.

TR: You grew up in coal country. What was your reaction when you learned of
the Sago disaster?

RW: Any time I hear about a mine accident my first reaction is human and my
thoughts are related to hope for the wellbeing of the people. My work is
heavily motivated by my own background as a Pennsylvania native who grew up
near the Quecreek mine. But mining accidents and incidents are not unique to
any corner of the world -- entrapments and natural disasters are world
issues, not backyard issues.

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