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ARCHE 2021 - Swiss robotics for the disaster relief of the future

For the fourth time, the unique training village in Wangen an der Aare was the venue for the ARCHE integration week (Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments). Among other things, this week served as a basis for assessing the practical suitability of Swiss robotics for the disaster relief of the future. 19 Swiss research teams were given the opportunity to test their systems in the realistic training environment of the rescue troops over a period of one week.

19.07.2021 | Romy Joller, specialist area Communications, Resources and Support

This year, the ARCHE integration week (Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments), which takes place annually, was held for the fourth time ever. During this week, around 150 researchers and students tested and evaluated their drones and robots in the training environment of the rescue troops in Wangen an der Aare. Access to these training facilities enables the research teams, for example, to collect realistic data and to develop their systems on a practical basis.

Every two years, users from disaster protection have the opportunity to observe the activities of these researchers on a demo day; this year was no exception. Around 120 guests from the Swiss Armed Forces, the Federal Administration and civilian authorities with security responsibilities were able to gain an overview of the latest robotic technology in the field of disaster relief.

Radiation detection on the ground and in the air

In order to measure gamma rays safely, researchers at the University of Applied Sciences Graubünden (Institute for Photonics and ICT), the Ostschweizer Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences East Switzerland, Institute for Software) and ETH Zurich (Vision for Robotics Lab), in cooperation with the company Arktis Detectors, have built a drone «birdAI» (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle UAV) as well as a land vehicle «boarAI» (Unmanned Ground Vehicle UGV) with integrated radiation detectors. A combination of UAV and UGV for radiation measurement could be used, for example, to monitor the dismantling of a nuclear power plant or after a terrorist attack with a «dirty bomb». 

Systems for detecting nuclear radiation are already in use, but unmanned ground and air-based robots offer certain advantages. Thanks to unmanned operation, people no longer need to enter the danger zone and the use of systems can be automated. In addition, both these robots are relatively small and can thus be transported quickly and easily. They are therefore particularly well suited for rapid, discreet deployment.

Wheeled walking robot ANYmal

Some returning guests were Marko Bjelonic’s team from the Robotics Systems Lab of ETH Zurich, with their wheeled walking robot «ANYmal on wheels». This hybrid robot combines the advantages of legs and wheels. The wheels enable the robot to move around quickly and efficiently over long distances in structured environments, while the legs allow it to tackle demanding terrain and overcome challenging obstacles. Thanks to numerous sensors, the robot is also capable of exploring and charting its surroundings autonomously, recognising objects and reporting their positions accurately to the centimetre, as well as navigating in the charted environment.

The integration week demonstrated that the robot’s movement in difficult environments is actually possible as planned in difficult environments, after many years of research. Thanks to the use of machine learning, the system is more agile and robust and can deal with a wide ranges of substrates. In future, the research team will focus more on the precision of autonomous navigation, so that the robot can make complex decisions by itself.

Robotic platforms for different payloads

The company Pulsed Power Systems AG (PPS AG) presented a modular caterpillar robot, which allows for different payloads. The system was developed as a research cooperation with armasuisse S+T and in cooperation with various Swiss institutes. Thanks to the different payloads, the robot can be used for various applications. Thus, for example, a payload with a gripper arm is developed to manipulate objects. Other payloads can be used, for example, for fire-fighting or to carry along a small drone for reconnaissance purposes.

Equipped with the fire-fighting payload, the robot has been tested this year together with the training unit engineer/rescue unit/ABC on site. Members of the Disaster Relief Emergency Recovery Battalion have been trained in the system and have presented the robot with the water cannon «Tornado RC» at the Demo Day in an operational exercise. As a result of the training week, the research team was able to gather valuable data, and the troops were able to gain initial experience with the robot.

ARCHE is the annual highlight of the research project. It’s an entire week of fun, which at the same time takes us an enormous step forward in terms of content.

                                    - Christian Bermes, Professor of Mobile Robotics, FH GR

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