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Innovative robot helps out during earthquakes

Locating earthquake survivors is no easy task for rescue teams. 

They traditionally first use dogs to help identify the areas where people are buried – under a collapsed building, for example. The next step is to make contact by knocking, but that’s no use if someone is unconscious. A telescopic arm equipped with a camera, microphone and speaker for making contact is used to inspect rubble closely. Despite being able to rotate, however, an arm of this kind is too inflexible to conduct an in-depth search of sites where structures have collapsed. This is also dangerous for rescue teams, who don’t know exactly what they’re dealing with – a risk not to be underestimated. Students at ETH Zurich have therefore initiated a project that aims to support emergency services with a search and rescue robot developed for this very purpose. Using special motion technology, it carefully snakes its way forwards – hence the catchy name “RoBoa”. The RoBoa team is using profile technology from the item MB Building Kit System for the stationary box that supplies the earthquake robot with everything it needs.

Innovative and reliable motion technology for areas hit by earthquakes

The RoBoa was created as part of a focus project at the Autonomous Systems Lab in Zurich, which is run by Professor Roland Siegwart. A focus project of this kind at the end of a bachelor’s degree always aims to develop a working prototype within nine months. Students gain invaluable practical experience during this process. “It’s of huge benefit to us. We can put what we’ve learned into practice and simply be engineers,” says mechanical engineering student Yves Haberthür from the eight-strong RoBoa team*. Complex everting technology is used to stop the robot generating friction and enable it to move over difficult terrain without any problems. Stanford University has already carried out research using this approach. A structure referred to as an “internal robot” is located inside a coated nylon tube with a diameter of 101 mm. It consists of two pneumatic actuators and is linked with two other parts of the RoBoa. The first of these is the head, which has temperature sensors plus a camera, microphone and speaker for the robot to communicate with earthquake victims. The second is a stationary box that accommodates the start of the tube along with cables, pneumatic pipes and electronics.

Minimal friction between the RoBoa and its surroundings

“When we increase the pressure inside the tube, it everts and the robot advances. The key advantage of this technology is that it minimises friction, because the small supply tubes move within the larger tube. The solution we’ve created is also decentralised, so there’s just a small air tube for the front part and an Ethernet cable for power and data. The internal robot then takes care of distribution to the segments,” explains Haberthür. This prevents the robot from getting stuck in the debris – unlike its predecessor, the Proboscis. Because this robot depended on external cables and tubes, the latter were dragged along with each segment, which resulted in it not being able to move any further than a few metres. One RoBoa segment is made up of an actuator and a valve terminal with associated electronics. The internal robot can bend by around 90 degrees per segment.

item has everything covered. It really is an all-in-one package and there’s a solution for everything.

The RoBoa’s rectangular box supplies compressed air to the tube, which can reach a maximum length of 17 metres. Thanks to its slimline design, the tube even fits through small openings. The robot is controlled using a joystick that moves the head sideways. When looking for a suitable construction material for the box measuring 460 x 460 x 500 mm, the team came across item profile technology. In addition to the quality of the material for the frame structure and surrounding panels, it also created an excellent overall impression. “The people at item are friendly and accommodating, and they were happy to help us. What’s more, when you create something using the item Engineeringtool, everything is supplied exactly the way you designed it. item has everything covered. It really is an all-in-one package and there’s a solution for everything,” emphasises Haberthür.

This is what the complex structure of the internal robot looks like.

The earthquake robot shows what it can do

While developing the robot, the RoBoa team worked with officials from the Swiss Army’s rescue corps and the Swiss Drone and Robotics Centre. This led to the first RoBoa prototype being unveiled in July 2020 as part of the annual ARCHE (Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments) event at the training centre of the Swiss rescue corps in Wangen an der Aare, which showcases the wide-ranging applications of robotics for disaster relief. Following a presentation of the project, the earthquake robot was called upon to show what it could do in a practical demonstration. Its mission was to locate a member of the team hidden under debris – a test it passed with flying colours. The team is currently in the process of developing a second, more advanced prototype. In addition to a water supply and an optimised control system that includes reverse motion, a revision of the supply box is also planned. The second RoBoa prototype will be unveiled at ARCHE 2021.

The RoBoa was put through its paces in this realistic scenario.

* The other members of the team are Samuel Sigrist, Patricia Hörmann, Pascal Auf der Maur, Alexander Kübler, Michael Lustenberger, Betim Djambazi and Oda Vigen.

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