Image credit: University of Bristol/Boston Dynamics
When tragedy strikes, lives can change in an instant. The unpredictability and destruction wrought by a natural or man-made disaster can paralyze a community and delay recovery efforts as emergency personnel assess potential hazards. In many cases, officials are using drones and robots in place of humans to perform dangerous, tedious, or time-sensitive tasks.
After Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf area, officials deployed PrecisionHawk drones to survey damage to railways, oil and gas lines, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. Using visual, thermal, LiDAR, or multispectral sensors, the drones were able to collect data from areas that were inaccessible to humans.
Drones and robots are increasingly used in disaster zones and search-and-rescue situations to alleviate the risk to human aid workers and expedite disaster recovery efforts. They fly over or walk the grounds capturing field data, which is then compared to previously collected asset data and analyzed by artificial intelligence engines to identify discrepancies. That information helps officials assess damages and establish recovery plans.
Robots Face Radioactivity
Using robots to enter areas humans cannot is helping researchers at Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Thirty-five years after the explosion, high levels of radioactivity still prevent extensive human exploration. The need for onsite radiation levels to be measured weekly put humans at risk of exposure. Robots are coming to the rescue.
Researchers from the University of Bristol outfitted Spot, the four-legged robot from Boston Dynamics, with a collimated radiation sensor and mapping technology. The dog-like robot can walk the grounds safely to measure on-site radiation levels in Chernobyl. Using the data collected by Spot, scientists have created a 3D map of the distribution of radiation.
Spot robots can be fitted with many varieties of technology making them adaptable and giving them a range of uses. With a 360-degree camera, Spot can be used to inspect sites and help officials after a natural disaster. An integrated laser scanner enables Spot to create digital twins, and the robot has also been used for warehouse automation tasks. By mounting a small tablet on Spot, doctors can remotely meet with patients, which has proven to be especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drones Help Avoid Disasters
More common than natural disasters are workplace injuries. According to the US Dept. of Labor Statistics, 27 percent of workplace injuries are the result of a fall. Companies are turning to aerial robots to complete repetitious, dangerous tasks, so workers can remain safely on the ground and out of harm's way.
Florida-based startup Apellix developed drones designed to take precise measurements at heights of 100 meters above ground. The Apellix drones fly themselves to precise locations on a structure, then the built-in probe makes contact with the material and performs the tests. Apellix’s aerial ultrasonic wall testing drone has integrated sensors that measure and record the depth of materials, ensuring the structural integrity of storage tanks and water towers.
Apellix also developed drones integrated with dry film thickness gauges to measure and record the thickness of cargo ship coating, which is frequently monitored for corrosion. A typical cargo ship requires 45,000 to 300,000 test readings to satisfy safety standards. The process is expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous for inspectors and operators. The drone data is sent in real time to a 3D map or text report, where operators can access it online.
In addition to dangerous jobs, drones are being deployed to improve efficiency in the power and agriculture industries. Unmanned devices offer a way to survey large areas more safely, affordably, and quickly.