8 min read

In the aftermath of disaster, humans have always been first on the scene putting their lives at risk. But is there a better way? Enter the R-Team.


An earthquake has hit. A plane has come down. A tornado has torn a city apart. What’s next? It’s time to send in the ground crew to scour the wreckage for survivors, assess the damage and identify possible sources of further danger.

But forget putting humans to work. This difficult, dangerous task can now be left to the new heroes on the scene: search and rescue robots.

While using robots to search through wrecks and rubble is nothing new – they were first used in urban SAR to help deal with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks – the technology behind these machines today is enabling them to expedite efforts in new and exciting ways.

Cyber cockroach swarms

CRAM, from researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard University

Credit: UC Berkeley

You’re trapped metres below rubble, injured but alive. The last thing you probably want to see scuttling towards you is a swarm of cockroaches. But that’s exactly what might happen if CRAM, an acronym for compressible robot with articulate mechanisms, is set to work.

Developed by a team of researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard University, this small cockroach-inspired bot can squeeze through the smallest crevices to previously unreachable spots and help rescue teams in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

“If there are lots of cracks and vents and conduits, you can imagine just throwing a swarm of these robots in to locate survivors and safe entry points for first responders,” said Professor Robert Full, University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with UK newspaper the Telegraph.

How did they come up with the design? They spent hours studying the movements of real insects, noting their ability to flatten to one-tenth of an inch and still run at full speed, plus withstand pressure of up to 900 times their body weight.

The prototype, replicating this biology, consists of a cheap palm-sized robot that can splay it legs outwards, topped with a layered plastic shell.

Listening in from above

The ‘listening drone’

Credit: Tokyo Institute of Technology

Drones have been used in emergency response for over a decade. This includes the clean-up efforts for earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015). However, while these eyes in the sky are great at visually assessing the scene, they’re not so hot at locating people or dangers obscured by rubble.

Enter (from above) the ‘listening drone’.

Developed by a Japanese research group as part of the government’s ImPACT Tough Robotics Challenge Program, this inspirational new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is equipped with a drone-world first: the ability to detect acoustic signals.

To enable this, in addition to lasers, sensors and cameras, the ‘listening drone’ sports microphone array technology (the robot ears) and robot audition (an interface for visualisation of invisible sounds). This enables it to find people hidden out of sight faster – critical, as survival rates drop after the first 72 hours.

Walk-Man has entered the building

Why put human lives at risk at the scene when you can send in a humanoid instead? Researchers at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genova, Italy, agree. They’ve come up with Walk-Man, a robotic avatar based on a robot from the DARPA Robotics Challenger, designed to assist emergency teams.

Standing at over six feet tall and weighing approximately 22lbs, Walk-Man is equipped with 32 engines and control boards, cameras, a 3D laser scanner and microphone, and chemical sensors to enable him to ‘see’ and interpret his surroundings. His dextrous, lightweight design lets him move and react fast, maintaining balance even on uneven terrain.

He’s also incredibly strong, according to Ioannis Sarakoglou, Research Engineer, IIT: “Every joint of the robot [is] similar to the power of a 50cc scooter engine” (via Euronews).

So far, in testing scenarios he’s navigated damaged rooms, opened damaged doors, stopped a gas leak, removed debris and identified and put out fires. Currently controlled remotely by human operators, one day, he or a similar platform could be searching wreckage independently.

Searching radioactive waters

Credit: Toshiba / IRID

Fukushima shook the world. Triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, nuclear waste spilled out into the Pacific, causing an environmental catastrophe. Although it’s been seven years since the incident took place, the clean-up will take decades. However, last year a breakthrough arrived, albeit in a rather fishy form.

Engineered by Kenji Matsuzaki and a team of engineers from Toshiba and the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), Manbo (‘Little Sunfish’), took to the dark, radioactive waters in search of some missing melted uranium fuel.

Once submerged, this nuclear-hardened robot, the size of a loaf of bread, used its combination of front- and rear-view cameras, lights and sensors to help it carry out the task.

It succeeded – something many robots before had failed to do despite significant investment – with its progress monitored and celebrated from the control room a short distance away. Now the scientists are imagining the next generation of robots: ones that can actually remove the fuel.

The shape-shifter

In July 2017, Science Robotics published a paper by Stanford University on a new type of ‘soft’ robot that could potentially be put to work in search and rescue operations. Looking a bit like a tentacle, snake or sentient vine, its design is inspired not by animals like most robots, but by the root growth of plants and fungi.

How does it work? The robot – essentially a thin plastic membrane containing control chambers – is filled with air using a pneumatic pump. As it fills it grows at the tip (up to 72 metres in length), enabling it to weave and worm its way through its surrounding environment, contorting itself to fit through holes.

According to the paper, one of these robots can “extend from its tip to thousands of times its original body length at a speed comparable to animal and robotic locomotion” – approximately 35km/h (22mph).

Armed with cameras and sensors, it can move free from human control. It can even form tool shapes such as hooks so it can manipulate objects. Plus the pressure inside gives it the strength to be able to lift objects as it grows.

Five inspirational search and rescue robots

Credit: Ioannis Oikonomou


Advances in robotics and AI are opening up new possibilities for search and rescue operations

From swarms of machine cockroaches to robotic fish, the future of search and rescue appears to be in new, machine-powered hands. Not only can they work faster and more efficiently, but they also avoid putting more lives at risk.

But while these robots will definitely assist the human effort, humans will still be in control for now, steering the effort from a safe distance.

Who knows when the next disaster will hit, but when it does one of these designs might just be first on the scene.