By Doug Page, Homeland1 Columnist
First responders searching the rubble of collapsed buildings following an earthquake, terror attack, or even attempting to reach trapped miners following a cave-in work not only against the clock but against poisonous gases, flooded tunnels, explosive vapors and unstable roofs and walls.
Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories are trying to beat that clock, and the elements, with an easy-to-use robot that can be sent into close, dangerous quarters first to survey the situation so disaster managers can plan rescue operations.
The unit, called the Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot, can also provide relief in the form of food, water and communication to those trapped.
"After a mine accident, the advance of rescue teams into any portion of the mine is limited by the lack of information regarding the air quality and structural integrity of the mine," said project manager Jon Salton.
Salton said Gemini-Scout will enable teams to scout ahead and advance into collapsed areas more quickly while at the same time keeping humans out of harm's way.
Gemini-Scout is designed to navigate through 18 inches of water and climb 45-degree boulder and debris inclines, and its suitcase size (4 feet long by 2 feet wide by 2 feet high) allows it to go places where people sometimes can’t.
The robot is operated remotely via a standard Xbox 360 controller, making it easy for new users to control. Its electronic components are housed in water-proof, explosive-proof casings, so flooding, methane or other gas explosions can’t disable the unit.
"The robot is intended to make mine rescue operations both safer and faster to the rescue teams, since the teams should be able to advance into and assess post-accident areas of a mine before it’s deemed safe enough for human teams to do so," Salton said.
Salton told Homeland1 that currently there is only one rescue robot approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but it isn't designed for the rugged, unstructured environments found in collapsed structures or mining areas. It’s also about twice the size of the Gemini-Scout.
"Gemini-Scout has extreme mobility capabilities for both structured and unstructured environments and is rugged enough to withstand the heat, standing water, deep mud and debris found in mines," Salton said.
While the robot was designed with mine rescue in mind, other responders may find uses for it.
"We anticipate that this technology is broad enough to be appealing to other first responders, such as police, firefighters and medical personnel," Salton said. "Gemini-Scout could easily be fitted to handle earthquake and fire scenarios, and we think this could provide real relief in currently inaccessible situations."
About the author
Since leaving a withering aerospace engineering career in 1994, Doug Page has been writing about technology, medicine, and marriage peril from the Panic Room in Pine Mountain, Calif. He won a 2006 Tabby Award for a story titled "Life in a Disaster Morgue" that appeared in the January 2006 issue of Forensic Magazine. From 1998-2008 he was the Technology Correspondent for Fire Chief Magazine. Page is also a former contributing editor for Homeland Protection Professional and Science Spectra magazines.