BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 17 September, 2001, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Robots aid New York rescue workers
World Trade Center wreckage AP
Smouldering ruins: Robots can go where people can't
Robots are being used to search for victims amid the rubble of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Three small experimental robots are being lowered into gaps between collapsed buildings to assist in the recovery of bodies.

The robots carry cameras and specialised sensors that can detect body heat or coloured clothing amid the grey dust that coats the debris.

The machines are able to move through broken glass and twisted steel to reach areas that would be too dangerous for people or search dogs to enter.

The robots were developed by computer scientists at the University of South Florida following the Oklahoma City bombing. They are each about the size of a shoebox and are operated by hand.

A team led by Dr Robin Murphy left for New York with the robots within hours of hearing news of the attacks. The robots have not found survivors but their operators hope they will be useful in locating bodies.

There has been no sign of life in the rubble of the twin towers for five days.

Artificial aid

Dr Murphy runs one of several research groups worldwide that are developing search-and-rescue robots. So far, only 40 such robots exist.

Pedro Lima of the Institute for Systems and Robotics in Lisbon is working on experimental robots to operate on land and from the air.

He said robots could enter areas that are too dangerous for human rescue workers. In the future, they might be capable of delivering food and medicines to an injured person and sending back pictures of their exact location.

But he said robots could never replace human rescuers.

Helping hand

"Humans can provide a hand to a victim and touch the person underneath the debris and that's a lot of help for the person in psychological terms," he said.

Professor Lima is talking to Portuguese authorities about developing a search-and-rescue robot for civil use.

He said one possibility was to develop a robot the size of a model aircraft that could fly over a disaster scene, sending back information about where to send human rescuers or other robots.

But several problems need to be resolved. Scientists must develop the necessary software for the robot to be able to "see" in changing light, explore its surroundings and co-ordinate the task with some form of "intelligence".

See also:

10 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Timeline: Real robots
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories