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Swiss Robotics – Use in disaster relief in the future

In the future, robots are likely to be used more and more in disaster relief. With their help, emergency responders should be supported and protected. Above all, the victims of natural disasters should receive assistance quicker. The Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) has launched a research programme in order to assess the practical suitability of robots (in disaster relief).

07.08.2018 | Patrizia Zwygart

Fire extinguishing robot in use during an unpredictable chemical accident
Fire extinguishing robot in use during an unpredictable chemical accident

One-week robotics research

As part of ARCHE (see insert), a one-week event took place in July in Wangen an der Aare, held on site at the leading Swiss player in robotics research. They had the opportunity to test their robots in a realistic environment and simulated natural disaster scenarios, and they were also able to exchange views with soldiers from the engineering, rescue and NBC training unit (LVb G/Rttg/ABC). Researchers from both Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, universities and universities of applied science, as well as research partners from the Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre (SDRZ) (see insert) also had the chance to broaden their knowledge of applications in the area of disaster relief.

One-day information event

During a one-day information event, some of the most renowned scientists in the field of robotics research in Switzerland spoke about running, walking, flying and swimming robots and referred to their use in disaster relief. Alongside presentations of a technical nature, the important topic of 'Ethics and Robotics' was also discussed. In this regard, a study on the ethical assessment of robots for use in the field of security was proposed by the University of Zurich, and commissioned by armasuisse Science and Technology.

In parallel to the presentations, several research demonstrations were carried out live, some of which were world firsts. Such demonstrations included the results of research on firefighting, locating people, removing large obstacles, measuring nuclear radiation, delivering emergency supplies, providing care for buried victims or mapping.

Furthermore, the advances made in autonomous navigation were shown: various robots demonstrated their ability to move in proximity to danger and without GPS. This is an important requirement for the autonomous use of robots in shielded areas, in buildings or underground (caves, holes, tunnels, etc.).

Robotics in disaster relief – Assessing the situation and measuring radiation from the air
Robotics in disaster relief – Assessing the situation and measuring radiation from the air

Example 1: Measuring radiation

The SDRZ launched a study in 2017 to evaluate the future possibilities for detecting nuclear radiation and measuring the surrounding area using mini drones. This study is being coordinated by armasuisse Science and Technology, led by ETH Zurich and carried out in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil, an industry partner, the LVb G/Rttg/ABC and Spiez Laboratory. The first results of this cooperation were presented at ARCHE: the measuring of the environment and the subsequent visualisation on a map, whereby commercial Swiss electrodes with a thorium supplement were used as the source of radiation.

Robotics in disaster relief – Use in hazardous environments
Robotics in disaster relief – Use in hazardous environments

Example 2: Remote operation of a walking excavator

For the first time worldwide, the remote operation of a partly-automated 12-tonne excavator was demonstrated over a distance of approximately 70 km at ARCHE 2018. In addition, the excavator serves as a highly mobile platform that can also carry different payloads and attachments (such as shovels, grippers, drilling equipment or concrete crushers) and can be used in many different ways in disaster relief areas. To facilitate operation, raise productivity and increase durability on the ground, the vehicle can be operated automatically. In order to research future uses, which require heavy objects to be manipulated and at the same time precise and smooth handling of delicate objects, the SDRZ and ETH Zurich are conducting a joint research project. This project should show the extent to which such a remote-controlled machine could be used to remove live munitions or high explosives, for example.

'Switzerland – home of drones' campaign and ARCHE

To position Switzerland as a leader in innovation and technology, Presence Switzerland – part of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) – launched the campaign 'Switzerland – home of drones'. The campaign offers opportunities to promote the country and, among other things, raises awareness of specialist companies and start-ups abroad. In contrast to the economic focus of 'Switzerland – home of drones', research in the field of Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments (ARCHE) at the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) focuses on technological aspects. ARCHE was launched in 2017 by the DDPS' Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre (SDRZ) and is led jointly with the LVb G/Rttg/ABC, ETH Zurich and the national research centre NCCR Robotics. The research programme focuses on assessing the maturity of technology and the practical suitability of Swiss robotics in disaster relief.

Example 3: Robotic 'elephant trunk'

In 2017, the SDRZ, ETH Zurich and the LVb G/Rttg/ABC launched a research project looking at 'smart' tools to support emergency responders in caring for and rescuing buried victims. Within nine months, a team of students from ETH Zurich had designed a demonstration model, which was largely made using a 3D printer. The demonstration model looked like a worm and had elastic parts which could be moved pneumatically. For movement, the parts are connected to a module that has a caterpillar drive. In future, such robots could be sent into building openings and help emergency responders to locate buried victims as well as help care for them by supplying water or air, for example.