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Robots on 'reins' could be the ‘eyes’ of firefighters

27 March 2015

Firefighters moving through smoke-filled buildings could find it easier to identify objects and obstacles, thanks to 'reins' that enable robots to act like guide dogs.

Testing the reins in a smoke filled cave in Germany (photo: Sheffield Hallam University)

The small mobile robot – equipped with tactile sensors – would lead the way, with the firefighter following a metre or so behind holding a rein. The robot would help the firefighter move swiftly in ‘blind’ conditions, while vibrations sent back through the rein would provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object the robot finds.

This potentially life-saving application of robotics has been developed by King’s College London and Sheffield Hallam University, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Project partners have included the charity Guide Dogs, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service and Thales. Now proof of concept has been completed, the team plan to build a full working prototype for testing in real-world firefighting conditions.

The four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany.

Currently, even when they have a map of the building, firefighters have to grope their way forward if smoke has badly affected visibility, feeling their way along a wall or following ropes laid by the first firefighter on the scene. But with only 20 minutes of oxygen per firefighter, there’s a real need for any innovation that can help them move more quickly and easily.

With the new system, the firefighter would wear a special sleeve covering their entire arm and incorporating electronic micro-vibrators that turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the firefighter would have been trained to interpret.

The robot would also sense any hesitation or resistance from the firefighter and adjust its pace accordingly. In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions. In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot. By using an algorithm the robot could detect the fire-fighters level of trust.

"We’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts," says Dr Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London. "Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities."

"With the use of robots in emergency situations still in its relative infancy, it is crucial to develop an understanding of how robotics interact with people and how those communications can be explored," adds senior designer, Heath Reed of Sheffield Hallam University. "This project paves the way for robotics to be developed in a number of exciting sectors and I would expect the next five years to see some real developments based on our own research."

The team has also developed a tactile language for using robotics in a number of domestic scenarios and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes.

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