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image of Search and Rescue Robot

From September 12-23, 2001, National Science Foundation-funded researchers aided World Trade Center recovery efforts...

Credit: CRASAR, University of South Florida

Where No Human Can Go (or Wants To)

Tumbleweed, a balloon-shaped robot explorer developed by NASA
Tumbleweed, a balloon-shaped robot explorer developed by NASA...

Credit: Dena Headlee / National Science Foundation
While the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers have become some of the most prominent robots in the solar system, NASA has teamed with NSF to test future robotic rovers in one of Earth's most inhospitable landscapes: Antarctica. In January 2004, the Tumbleweed Rover, which is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, left the NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on an eight-day mission across Antarctica's polar plateau.

Shaped like a six-foot beach ball, Tumbleweed sent back information about its position and surrounding conditions to a JPL ground station during its 40-mile, wind-driven roll. The test confirmed the rover's durability in an extremely cold environment, with an eye toward using the devices to explore the Martian polar caps and search for water on other planets.

In addition to other planets, researchers use robots to explore the ocean's depths, search disaster sites and navigate dangerous skies. NSF's Yuh, for
Omni-Directional Intelligent Navigator (ODIN)
First built in 1991, the Omni-Directional Intelligent Navigator (ODIN) is a sphere-shaped, autonomous underwater robot capable of instantaneous movement in all six directions...

Courtesy Autonomous Systems Laboratory, University of Hawaii
example, is director (on leave during his NSF stint) of the Center for Underwater Robotic Technology at the University of Hawaii. There, he and his colleagues develop underwater autonomous vehicles (AUVs), including SAUVIM, one of the first AUVs equipped with an intelligent robotic arm. Such capabilities are needed to use robotic vehicles to repair underwater structures and recover wreckage.

Supported by NSF, University of Colorado at Boulder researchers are using small, pilot-less planes to collect data to study the complex interactions of Arctic ice and global climate. The robotic planes can fly under conditions poorly suited for manned aircraft and have incredible range, due to their fuel efficiency.

Industry also uses robots for tasks in confined and dangerous conditions. Welding robots for assembling ship hulls, for example, work in tight, enclosed spaces where toxic fumes can't easily escape, making the job dirty and dangerous, not to mention highly uncomfortable for humans.

Search and rescue operations have also been targeted by robotics researchers because of the dangers that disaster sites present to human rescuers. On Sept. 12, 2001, graduate students and the robots they helped develop were among the early responders who joined the rescue efforts after collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

The graduate students were from the University of South Florida's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), directed by Robin Murphy. Supported by NSF, Murphy works to understand the research issues and practical matters that robot developers might overlook or take for granted during search-and-rescue operations, such as maneuvering a robot with only a robot's eye view, operating a robot while wearing safety gloves and working while exhausted.

"My hope is that in five years, when you see a disaster or earthquake on television, you immediately know what you're going to see," Murphy said. "You're going to see people in FEMA hard hats, you're going to see dogs and you’re going to see robots. You're just going to expect a rescue to have robots. It's going to be that standard."

Robotics A Special Report