Robots to save lives in the Alps

Scientists from the University of Twente (Netherlands) are developing a unique robotic solution for Alpine rescue situations. The project, appropriately named SHERPA, combines a ground robot - 'ground rover' - with a robotic arm, flying robots and human workers.

What makes the project unique is the emphasis on co-operation between robots and humans. People aren't there just as controllers. Rather, the project seeks to exploit the complementary strengths of man and machine. The SHERPA project is about building rescue teams for disasters such as avalanches, rather than mechanical agents to be entirely controlled by humans.

The Twente robotic arm

At the centre of SHERPA is the robotic arm being developed by Raffaella Carloni and other members of the Robotics and Mechatronics group (CTIT Institute) on behalf of the University of Twente.

The arm will be mounted on the ground rover robot. In order to make it suitable for the mountainous environment, the arm is more resistant to shock and vibration than the current generation of robotic arms.

But two things really stand out. Firstly – and uniquely – the arm can alter its rigidity to suit the application. And secondly, in the spirit of the project, it's being developed with a focus on co-operation. Part of the arm's purpose is to grasp the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV i.e. SHERPA's flying robot) whilst airborne and place it on the charger mounted on the ground robot.

Sensors for remote operation

Human rescue workers will be equipped with portable technology and sensors to operate the airborne robot without having to be at the site of the calamity itself – meaning SHERPA rescue teams may be able to respond to situations previously too dangerous for human-only rescue operations.

The human operator will have detailed information on the UAV, including the robot's dynamic movements, measured in position, speed and resistance. This will give the operator the best possible perception of the situation without being there themselves.

Robotic cognition

As part of the emphasis on robot-human co-operation, one of the key elements of the SHERPA project is the robots' own cognitive abilities. The UAV's algorithms are designed to allow the robot to operate at least semi-autonomously, with a view to the machine actively assisting its operator in locating victims, and determining the best strategy for rescue.

SHERPA is very much in active development. Participants in the 11 million Euro project recently (October 2014) met for an 'integration' week at the University of Twente to carry out various experiments and collate their individual results. Project beneficiaries include seven international academic groups, two companies and the Italian Association of Alpine Rescuers.

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