Teleoperated robots could make disaster response smarter, faster

Electrical engineers from the University of Washington recently developed telerobotics technology that could make disaster response more efficient for first responders.

The engineers are working with eight other organizations as part of SmartAmerica Challenge, an initiative meant to encourage the development of new technologies to help society. The group seeks to combine existing smart technologies during crisis and disaster response.

Technologies involved in the project include teleoperated robots, drones, a high-tech dispatch system and vests equipped with sensors and GPS tracking to be worn by search-and-rescue dogs.

"We are working on an application of technology that's clearly for the public good, and that's what motivated our team's idea," Howard Chizeck, the team leader from the university, said. "The key is we're taking many developed technologies from different organizations and putting them together in a way that's innovative."

Chizeck's team is working to develop robots that can more seamlessly interact with human operators. The new technology allows robot operators to feel feedback in the form of pressure on a hand controller, allowing the operators to avoid known objects and determine when the robot's arm reaches its limit.

"The idea is really to combine the skills and situational awareness of a human operator with the precision and repeatability of an autonomous robot," Fredrik Ryden, a postdoctoral researcher with the university's Center for Commercialization, said. "This way we can rely as much on a robot as we can on a human."

The engineers demonstrated the robot's ability to enter a disaster scene and turn off a gas valve. The team said the telerobotics technology, when combined with other smart systems, could help with future disaster responses and even create jobs.