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Developing sensors for ‘worm robots’ to be used after disasters

07 October 2019

Chemical sensors can be mounted on to ‘worm robots’, as part of a project to improve detection of people trapped under debris after a disaster.

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In the face of natural or man-made disaster, urban search and rescue teams and other first responders like police, medical units or civil protection race against the clock to locate survivors within a critical 72-hour timeframe, often at their own peril due to the presence of unstable structures or hazardous environments.

In order to speed up the detection of survivors trapped in collapsed buildings and to improve working conditions for the first responders, a new Europe-wide project is devising novel technologies using drones, miniaturised robotic equipment and advanced sensors.

The innovative CURSOR Search and Rescue Kit features robots equipped with chemical sensors that detect a wide range of chemical substances indicating human presence, which are carried from operational headquarters to a disaster site by a drone. On site, the robots work independently in clusters searching for survivors. 

Additionally, the Mothership UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) acts as an aerial hub that produces high-definition imaging for accurate visualisation of the disaster zone and allows communication with the control centre.

Researchers from The University of Manchester’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science are developing chemical sensors for small ‘worm robots’ which can enter through small crevices in debris and send a signal to people above ground if live persons are detected.

“First responders have practical experience on the field and developers the technical know-how,” said project coordinator Klaus Dieter Büttgen, of the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. “Through this unique collaboration between technical partners, industry, academics and first responders, expertise will be transformed into a novel technology that contributes to locating buried victims more swiftly and with less risk for the people conducting the research operation.”

“One of the problems in coping with disaster situations is the people may be buried under debris or rubble, and it can be difficult to locate them,” said Professor Krishna Persaud of The University of Manchester. “It is also urgent to prioritise the recovery of people who may be alive from those who have sadly passed away.”

“The new technologies developed will add an arsenal of tools to those teams involved in search and rescue operations worldwide.” 

The European Commission granted €7M to the CURSOR research proposal under the Horizon 2020 funding scheme. The project was officially launched in September and will run for three years.

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