In place of first responders, robots are being deployed to scope out dangerous situations and avoid serious injuries and even loss of human life. To function in these hostile environments, robots need human senses of vision, extraordinary smell, hearing and more. The stakes are high, so traditional cost constraints do not apply, but cost is still a factor.
More and more organizations, such as police and fire departments, are seeing the value of having a highly mobile robot perform tasks in high-risk environments to avoid harm to a human. While the military may have taken the lead in using robots in hazardous situations, domestic organizations dealing with hazmat, bomb/arson or sniper situations are also turning to robots for first response. Depending on the target activity, a variety of sensors come into play to help the robot perform its duties.
“The sensors are everything. The sensors are what makes these things really, really useful,” says Susan Eustis, president and co-founder of WinterGreen Research, a market research firm. “When I call on the different robot companies and present to them, that's what they tell me.”
In its report, “Military Ground Robots and First Responder Robot Market Strategy, Market Shares and Market Forecasts, 2008-2014,” WinterGreen Research says the market for these robots was $441 million in 2007 and expects it to reach $43.7 billion by 2014 with growth of 92.8 percent compound annual growth rate coming from countries, law enforcement agencies, fire departments and first responders. These organizations are implementing an automated process to support existing manual processes. Several companies expect to play a key role in that growth and use a variety of sensors for their robots.
Deployed in Public Safety, Fire and Rescue Situations
To design a robot for law enforcement and first responder applications, QinetiQ, North America's Foster-Miller subsidiary, uses technology and insight from designing and manufacturing military robots. Cost reductions are also factored into the designs.
The TALON Responder robot has four vision sensors including three infrared (IR) illuminated color cameras. “They're automatic IR illuminated, so in low-light situations, three of those cameras will illuminate,” says Martin Foley, anti-terrorism manager, Technology Solutions Group, a subsidiary of Foster-Miller, of QinetiQ North America. An operator viewing with these cameras in a dark room has better sight capabilities than in a normally lit room. A fourth camera has a 300 to 1 zoom and an external light source.
“The basic TALON has those four cameras on it and they all report back to either a laptop controller or an operating control unit, an OCU,” says Foley. “That's all done wirelessly and that can be done from as far away as 800 meters.”
Normal operation for the wireless system is anywhere from 300 to 500m from the OCU, depending on the location. “What you are looking for here is standoff,” says Foley, regarding the separation of the human observer from the robot responder and the situation it is exploring. “The farther away you get from them, the better off you are.”
With the appropriate vision sensing in place, one of the next requirements is chemical sensing. “What we have the capability of right now is detecting chemical warfare agents, volatile gases, toxic industrial chemicals and explosives,” says Foley. TALON hazardous materials robots use JAUS (Joint Architecture Unmanned Systems) software for plug-and-play connection of up to seven detection devices.
The robot can read temperatures remotely from about 8m away. An industrial hazard situation for the laser-guided temperature sensor could involve drums that have been knocked over. “We can actually take the temperature of a drum and see if it's getting ready to explode,” says Foley.
For investigating hazardous chemical sites, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relies on the Hazardous Environment Robotic Observer (HERO) robot from First Response Robotics LLC.
“The EPA uses your standard area array and MultiRAE and DataRAM,” says Mike Carderelli, president, First Response Robotics. “These are all chemical/biological warfare multi-use sensing devices.”
These sensing technologies can provide information on carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), oxygen, Lower Explosive Limit (LEL), carbon dioxide and air particulates including airborne dust, smoke, mist, haze and fumes.
For its applications, the EPA specifies the type of equipment it requires, as well as the system interface that has to be mounted on the robot. “I spent a year with them designing a plug-and-play system so it can plug right into the robot,” says Carderelli.
The EPA uses the Rapid Assessment Tool that allows for easy plug-and-play. “It's also mounted into the robot,” says Carderelli. “All of the equipment, including GPS, is plugged into this interface and all of the live data is sent back wirelessly to their command center.” The EPA collects the data wherever the robot is at in real time. “I can log on to a secure website and see what the robot sees and what the instruments see live, also,” says Carderelli.
Military Tested For Civilian Use
In addition to its well-known home robot, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, iRobot also supplies highly mobile robots to the military, as well as state and local agencies for domestic surveillance and reconnaissance. The company's Negotiator 200 robot with Civil Response Kit addresses dangerous scenarios for public safety professionals with a cost-sensitive version that takes advantage of technology developed for military robots including sensors.
“There's a lot to be done on robotics on the optical side both in spreading the range, into low light and thermal range,” says Jim Rymarcsuk, senior vice president for business development, Government and Industrial Div., iRobot. “Over half the military applications and a lot of civil applications are done at night or in dark buildings or tunnels or caves or culverts, so having thermal imaging capabilities is important.”
Robots operate at a disadvantage compared to human first responders. That disadvantage is turned into an advantage by increasing the capability of the vision sensors. “Robots today do not have the full eyes that we do, so you don't have full situational awareness,” says Rymarcsuk. “They have tunnel vision.” This lack of peripheral vision and other vision shortcomings can be improved with more sensors. “The first thing is to get more comprehensive visual both in field of view and acuity,” says Rymarcsuk.
Enhanced optical systems can be better than the human eye with the ability to zoom and see other wavelengths.
With lasers, ranging capability can provide another vision option. “There are relatively inexpensive sensors out there that can give you point range information or designation information,” says Rymarcsuk. “They can also have built-in illumination in non-visible spectrum.” As a result, the suspect is unaware of the illumination and the robot is fully operational just like in daylight.
Adding More Sensing
Once the robot can “see,” the next detection enhancement involves explosives and chemical sensors.
“We have deployed hundreds of explosive sensors for the military, some for civil responders,” says Rymarcsuk. In the chemical range, the sensors are looking for industrial chemicals, or for the military, chemical warfare agents. To sense these chemicals, the MultiRAE Gas Monitor Adapter Kit and MultiRAE Gas Monitor Detection System can be included on iRobot's Negotiator 200.
“It's an industrial chemical sensor, so it can sense a wide range of chemicals,” says Rymarcsuk. The sensor can detect O2, LEL and toxic gases. If there is an area that may be dangerous for people to enter because there is insufficient oxygen, the robot's sensor can detect it. The sensor can also detect a variety of chemical spills in an industrial environment.
With the Negotiator 200, the ability to hear and speak through the system is essential. “That's a basic sort of capability. You want to be able to interact remotely with people,” says Rymarcsuk. “That's important for situational awareness.”
A more sophisticated audio system is part of the RedOwl system used for sniper detection that can hear sounds and locate them. “It has an array, so it can tell which direction they are coming from and it can classify them,” says Rymarcsuk. The system uses biomimetic technology, intelligent sound detection capability for robots, so it can react like an animal does to hear, locate and classify a potential threat.
“When it hears a sound, it can tell you the direction, it can tell you what it is within its category of things and it can automatically turn to it,” says Rymarcsuk. “Police applications today are for sniper detection but it has the potential to do a lot more.”
Other exotic sensors that can be added to robots include X-ray vision and radiation sensing. Radiation sensing is important for bomb threats. “It can reach its arm around things and X-ray things and remotely send it digitally back to the controller and tell you what's inside of a bag or trash can or something like that,” says Rymarcsuk. For nuclear power plants, a robot with a radiation sensor can monitor critical areas and detect leaks. These are just two of the more sophisticated sensors that can be implemented for special-purpose robots.
In some applications, very basic sensors can be added to robots for improved functionality. “In fire situations, we also put thermistors or temperature sensors on the robot itself to be careful that it does not get too hot,” says Rymarcsuk. This sensing can ensure the robot's safe operation by detecting its surface temperature and moving away from a heat source.
Based on the need to meet the budget constraints of law enforcement and other first responder organizations, sensors developed for the military are not necessarily the lowest cost alternative. Robots require sensors that are similar to consumer and industrial applications, with cost being a primary, but not the only, consideration. “The main drivers are rugged because of use in the real world, not in the laboratory environment,” says Rymarcsuk. “Small size is another one because you want to put these on small platforms.” In addition, digital systems are important for compressing and transmitting the information through a wireless network.
With these new domestic applications, Rymarcsuk envisions an endless stream of new payloads and sensing capabilities for robots. The starting point is duplicating, or at least simulating, human sensing with goals to go well beyond this capability for different hazardous situations. “So you can be at least as situationally aware as a person would be in that environment and then to exploit the other capabilities that are out there beyond what normal human sensing capabilities are,” he says.