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Robots to the rescue: autonomous tech could help first responders enter disaster zones

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For decades, movies like Robocop, I, Robot, and Transformers have projected public fantasies about heroic robots entering emergency zones to save the day. But now such technology may no longer be confined to science fiction.

Alejandro Ramirez-Serrano, a professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at the University of Calgary, has spent seven years designing a robot to help first responders face disasters.

“We’re trying to enable the robot to actually perceive and understand the intent of the mission,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.

The mission, he explained, is for the robot to enter emergency situations and assess dangers on behalf of first response teams.

“One of the ways we are planning to do it is assist responders to search for victims when they are not able to go inside disaster zones [such as a collapsed building] because they are unaware of certain dangers,” he said.

Originally from Mexico, Ramirez-Serrano had been exposed to a number of natural disasters, such as tornadoes and earthquakes. “I have seen the devastation and I have seen that there is a need to assist first responders,” he said.

The robot, which would be designed to autonomously search a premise faster and more efficiently than a human, has interchangeable hands, a space-age helmet for a head, and looks a little like Iron Man. Capable of adapting to unpredictable environments, it could abruptly change its locomotion style, switching from walking to climbing to crawling based on advanced sensors assessing the risks around it.

“We’re not trying to replace first responders,” Ramirez-Serrano said. “We’re trying to provide them with the tools for them to perform their work much [safer].”

Much like with humans accepting self-driving cars, a major barrier, he said, is encouraging people to trust these robots in emergency situations.

Ramirez-Serrano’s development team is the only group in North America working on first response robotics for disaster zones, but other researchers in Europe have developed robots that could scour avalanche sites, enter burning buildings and secure city streets contaminated by poisonous chemicals.

It could be another decade before this technology is ready for global action, but Ramirez-Serrano knows the time is approaching for heroic robots to march beyond the silver screen.

“Robots to the rescue,” he said. 

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