The Role of Robotics in Disaster Relief

From the wild fires that raged through California, to the tsunami that struck Indonesia, recent years have forced nations around the world to respond to natural disasters. When these disasters strike, the response needs to be swift and decisive to minimise the danger to people inside the disaster zone, but this level of response is not always feasible without putting responders in significant danger themselves.

Could robots be the solution to the challenges of disaster relief?

The Challenges of Disaster Relief

For several years now, robots have proved to be a valuable addition to disaster relief efforts. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, search-and-rescue robots were used to search for survivors in areas too dangerous for human rescuers. Similarly, autonomous exploratory craft were sent into the areas surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant to measure the radiation levels following the 2011 earthquake and reactor leak.

These robotic craft have allowed relief efforts to explore and enter dangerous areas of the disaster zone without putting human responders in the way of unnecessary harm. The robots are both more robust, and more expendable, than humans, but they have still faced challenges when exploring particularly difficult terrain. Large and sturdy robotic craft can’t always enter small and cluttered spaces, such as the interiors of collapsed building. Plus, the presence of a heavy machine could cause additional damage and structural instability, further endangering the very people they are attempting to rescue.

The New Generation of Disaster Relief Robots

Fortunately, a number of innovative new robotics projects are providing innovative solutions to these issues.

One such promising development is Harvard’s Ambulatory Microbot (HAM) – a tiny robotic device that is able to fly, swim, walk on land and even on water. The team behind HAM hope that dozens of the solar-powered robots will be able to work together in ‘swarms’ to pass rapidly through disaster zones and use inbuilt sensors to look for signs of life. The miniature scale of the individual devices will allow them to pass through narrow, complex spaces without causing further damage to delicate and unsteady structures.

Similarly, one of Rewired’s own portfolio companies, Raptor Maps, is building software that can convert the data gathered by drones into deliverables for various industries. The primary use they foresee for this technology is gathering data for the solar power industry, but the ability to gather thermal imaging from the air has significant potential application for search and rescue operations.

The Humanitarian Future of Robotics

According to an article by Rewired’s lead investor Tej Kohli, robotics already has a major role to play in humanitarian action – responding quickly and effectively to natural disaster is just one part of this much broader societal role for robots.

From taking on the most physically demanding and dangerous roles in the workplace, to performing complex surgical procedures, robots have the potential to drastically improve the lives of people around the globe.

For Rewired, investments in machine perception are a way to support the projects that are changing the world around us, and driving a new economy. To find out more about the projects Rewired is interested in backing, please get in touch.



Posted on: February 26, 2019

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