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Rights: The University of Waikato
Published 2 September 2010
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Professor Dale Carnegie of Victoria University responded to the search and rescue efforts during the 9/11 World Trade Centre bombing by formulating an innovative design for a series of search and rescue robots. Breaking up the tasks in search and rescue to suit a series of robots with different specialties is a world first that he hopes will save more lives.

Point of interest

Why were the American robots not effective in the World Trade Centre search and rescue?

Transcript

PROF DALE CARNEGIE
When the World Trade Centre fell down, a team drove up with a whole heap of robots, and they failed utterly.

It’s a very, very difficult task. To give you some indication, to save one person in a situation like that normally takes 10 people 10 hours, and you have 48 hours to do it. After that, they are probably dead, so we really are trying to come up with a system that can, within that 48 hours, find as many people as they can.

Now, what the Americans tend to do is build big huge robots that try to do everything, and the result is they actually don't do anything. Now, we had a look at the problem. We thought, “No, the same robot doesn't need to do every single task.”

So we've got a tiered system, so we've got a grandmother, a mother and a daughter. Now, the grandmother is the brains, she’s a big robot, she’s got a large number of sensors, huge amount of computing power, big car batteries in it, she can last a long time.

Then we have the mothers. The mothers are designed to really penetrate into that disaster zone, get over all of the rubble, avoid all the girders, can operate upside down if she has to. And what the mother will do, if, when she is passing over the ground, she sees a hole or a crevice – somewhere where she thinks might lead under the ground where people are trapped – she will drop off a daughter.

Our daughters are the most special part of the system, because for the first time, we have made a robot that is disposable. So these robots are really small. If you can imagine your credit card with wheels, that is about the size of these daughter robots, so very small, and they have to be small to penetrate down under that rubble.

And they've got the sensors to try and find if a human is trapped under there, and if they find someone, they are too stupid to do much about it, but they will radio that message back to the mother. The mother will work out where the daughters are. They’ll communicate that back to the grandmother. The grandmother processes everything and tells a search and rescue team, “Dig here.”

Each mother will have about 30 daughter robots in it. So we are looking at flooding an area with nearly 200 daughter robots – really trying to maximise that coverage and trying to find those trapped people as soon as we can.

So we are not trying to get one robot to do everything. We have worked out which robots are best suited to which task, and by doing that, we think we've really come up with a world first that hopefully really will save lives.