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ARCHE 2023 - Robotics for the disaster relief of the future

The "Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments" event, ARCHE for short, took place at Avully from 10 to 14 July 2023, the first time it has been held in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The event is a collaboration between the DDPS's Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre (SDRZ) of armasuisse Science and Technology, the Engineering/Rescue/ABC training unit and ETH Zurich. The aim of the ARCHE platform is to enable robotics application findings to be used to assist the armed forces and other authorities with a security role in the area of disaster relief and to make it possible to assess the use of robotics in this context.

20.07.2023 | Anna Gervasoni and Fabio Winkelmann, specialist area Communications, Competence sector Resources and Support

The participants of the ARCHE 2023 assembled.

This year, ARCHE took place for the sixth time.  But it was the first time for it to be held at the Epeisses training village near Geneva. The training village for engineers and rescue troops is ideally suited for conducting applied research, testing systems in a realistic environment and facilitating an exchange of ideas and views with potential users. A demo day is held here every two years. This day gives users involved in disaster protection the opportunity to take a closer look at the activities and systems. The demo day at the site took place on Thursday, 13 July 2023. In the morning, the invited guests attended various specialist presentations on robotics. The aim of the afternoon session was for the guests and other groups, such as media professionals, to be able to exchange ideas and views with the researchers and to see the robotic systems in action at the exhibition site . This article looks in detail at five selected systems. These are all research projects being conducted by armasuisse Science and Technology.

Detection of hazardous substances and rescue and recovery missions (Bird AI + Boar AI)

The system presented by the University of Applied Sciences of the Grisons combines Bird AI's drone and Boar AI's tracked vehicle. The aim is for drone and vehicle to operate in tandem in such a way that they can detect e.g. toxins or radioactive substances in the soil as well as in the air. It should also be possible to map the contaminated soil. The drone and the ground vehicle are fitted with two detection sensors: one sensor measures radioactivity and the second is able to detect a variety of chemicals. Dr. Christian Bermes, Professor of Mobile Robotics at the University of Applied Sciences of the Grisons, is in charge of this research work. He and his team use existing robotic vehicles to study how the two systems interact and to work on the automated creation of a hazard map. This is a map showing where and in what concentrations hazardous substances have been measured. He also stresses that a parallel aim is to develop the ground vehicle to the point where it could also potentially undertake rescue and recovery missions.

ANYmal/Alma – an extended arm for humankind

ALMA stands for Articulated Locomotion and Manipulation and is a system developed by ETH Zurich's Robotic Systems Lab. It is used together with the quadrupedal robot named ANYmal. ALMA is equipped with a custom-developed arm and two static cameras on the front. The aim of this system is to be able to use the robot to execute tasks in dangerous locations using remote control or even automation, so as not to have to send humans into danger zones.  One conceivable application for this might be maintenance work on nuclear reactors, for example. The researchers are currently also looking at whether ALMA could be deployed in the Gotthard tunnel for the automated inspection of electrical installations. ALMA can also be used for explosive ordnance disposal. There is a 360-degree control for operating the arm remotely. What is special about this remote-control unit is its ability to transfer force feedback. This gives the operator a sense of the pressure with which objects are being gripped, making it possible to manipulate objects extremely precisely. In order to further enhance the system's range of tasks, the next challenge for ALMA's developers is to integrate a second arm into the system. 

RoBoa: the serpentine robot

The second generation of RoBoa was presented at this year's ARCHE event.  RoBoa is a snake-like robot which can not only locate people buried under rubble but also provide them with a certain amount of first aid, for example by supplying them with water, medicines or liquid food. The aim of this is to gain more time for rescue efforts. 

Our aim is to make rescuing people buried under rubble faster, safer and easier.


The system has been in development since 2019 and is currently 20 metres long, with a diameter of 10 centimetres. Thanks to its small form factor, the device can penetrate very tight spaces, for example inside the rubble of a collapsed building. In order for a person to reach the same locations or to access them with different equipment, highly complex and time-consuming excavation work is often necessary. A 3D camera with a very powerful light source is mounted on the front of the robot's "head". This is make it easier to locate people. Alexander Kübler, one of the co-developers of RoBoa, says that the project's vision is that RoBoa will make rescuing people buried under rubble faster, safer and easier. The next goal should be to further reduce the diameter of the robot in order to reach even narrower spaces and thereby gain even more time for rescue and recovery.

Tethys Robotics: the underwater robot

Proteus, the underwater robot developed by Tethys Robotics and researchers at ETH Zurich, is able to map the terrain below a body of water and can also be used for search operations. The robot can also be fitted with an arm for lifting material weighing up to 5 kg, and can then also perform logistics tasks. The developers are also looking into how various other sensors or even a metal detector could be integrated. A metal detector has already been used to help explosive ordnance disposal divers in the Swiss Armed Forces to locate ammunition remnants in Swiss waters. The ability to detect objects and create a virtual map of the underwater terrain in real time has been particular helpful for orientation.

The aim is to make waters safer for all.  That is Tethys Robotics' mission.


A special feature of Proteus is that the robot can be deployed in murky and turbulent water. The use of various sensors and intelligent algorithms makes this possible. With the aid of sonar, a Doppler velocity meter, depth sensors and other sensors, the robot can maintain a stable position even in strong currents. However, the sensors are also used for visualising the environment and objects in real time and for creating a 3D reconstruction following a mission. Andrej Studer, a scientist working at ETH Zurich, explains that the long-term vision for the project is "to make waters safer for all". He goes on to say that the robot is also of particular interest to the police and to industry.

Gravis Robotics – unmanned heavy construction machines

Gravis Robotics studies the remote control and automation of heavy construction machines. Initially established at ETH Zurich, the group is now a startup company and longstanding SDRZ research partner. Construction machines, particularly walking excavators, are used not only in normal operating environments but also for disaster relief. A key feature of excavators of this kind is their extremely highly developed all-terrain capability, but controlling such systems is correspondingly complex. Gravis Robotics develops software and sensor packages to simplify this and to enable remote control or even automated control. At this year's ARCHE event, the researchers worked on the automation of excavation work. Their aim is to give the machine the desired contours of the terrain and for the machine to then excavate it autonomously. The machine uses a variety of sensors, such as cameras and laser distance meters, to record the terrain and then compares it with the contours specified, in order to determine how much material has to be removed and from where. At the same time as the research work on ARCHE, another similar construction machine is being put to emergency use at the shooting range in Wichlen. During the remediation of the shooting range, it is likely that hazardous ammunition remnants or unexploded ordnances will be encountered during the excavation work. For this reason, the army is operating the ARMANO walking excavator by remote control.  This means that the soldiers do not have to enter the danger zone and can carry out the necessary work from a safe distance.

Strategic Advisory Board

ARCHE also offered the opportunity for an exchange of views and ideas with the Strategic Advisory Board of the DDPS's Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre (SDRZ). Its representatives discussed the challenges and opportunities of security robotics and the potential for collaboration. This has provided insights into how the SDRZ should continue to develop in the years to come.

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