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Can robots come to your rescue in a burning building?

USC Viterbi teams develop a wireless network to be used in disasters, sparing the lives of humans

burning building illustration
A team of robots scans the premises of a burning building, giving firefighters knowledge of the environment before they enter. (Illustration/Peter Bollinger)

Imagine that people are trapped on the top floor of a burning skyscraper as firefighters scramble to rescue them.

What if robots intervened, putting fewer lives on the line?

Two teams at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering are working to make that scenario a reality.

Autonomy is key

Ph.D. students Jason Tran and Pradipta Ghosh, under the guidance of Bhaskar Krishnamachari, associate professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, are focusing on the movements and networking of autonomous robots.

Meanwhile, doctoral student Shangxing Wang is working with Krishnamachari and Nora Ayanian, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, to develop algorithms that the robots would use to communicate with each other.

Tran and Ghosh are developing a testbed to determine if their mobile robots can use radio communication to help each other move around a room full of obstacles.

If successful, the robots could accurately communicate the details of the room with the least human input possible.

Although robotics companies such as Google-owned Boston Dynamics already have prototypes of humanoid robots that navigate through varied environmental terrains, they still depend on humans to control each robot. And at this stage, the robots cannot communicate with each other without human directives.

“The vision is the robots would notify firefighters where to go and where not to go,” Tran said. “These robots could detect a survivor’s location or determine if the temperature and atmospheric conditions of a specific room may be too much for a human to handle. Robots are typically equipped with various sensors to gather this type of information.”

The end goal is for robots to go into a burning building and assess the situation.

Pradipta Ghosh

According to Ghosh, “The end goal is for robots to go into a burning building and assess the situation. Based on their feedback, the firefighters can plan their rescue mission. Hopefully in the future, rescue robots can also do the firefighting in very dangerous situations.”

Tran and Ghosh hope the mobile robots, along with the wireless networks needed for communication, will be functional by next year.

“The biggest challenge is interlinking them,” Ghosh said. “The robots have to work as a whole [unit], not as individuals.”

Working on wireless communication

Meanwhile, Wang is focusing on the development of algorithms to withstand anticipated wireless communication woes. For example, if a team of robots is mapping out a burning building, the collapse of a ceiling could block the relay of a signal.

“I want to see how we can design algorithms to make sure robots can stay connected and communicate with each other when they are performing a task in an unknown environment,” Wang said.

The research could have several applications, including area surveillance; the delivery of food and supplies; and the rescues of people trapped by a natural disaster.

The research has earned international recognition. On Sept. 15 in Germany, a paper was presented at an international conference on intelligent robots.

“It’s great to see that people are interested in our research,” Ayanian said.

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