It is not entirely clear how many people are still trapped under the rubble left by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Rescue teams search for survivors nearly 24 hours a day, though the chances of finding survivors diminish with each passing day.
There are several ways to find people alive under the rubble. Direct communication is sometimes possible when rescuers believe they hear a sign of life: trapped people calling attention by yelling or hitting, or by texting family or friends.
These are exceptions, however.
As a rule, rescue teams rely on other methods to search for survivors. On Tuesday, the EU presented the CURSOR (Coordinated Use of Miniature Robotic Teams and Advanced Sensors for Search and Rescue Operations) project: robots and drones to help rescue people from earthquake rubble.
Tiny robots on wheels, equipped with infrared and thermal cameras, use a tube to check the air for CO2 and typical human proteins. This could indicate people trapped under the rubble. With the help of loudspeakers and microphones, rescuers can try to establish contact with possible survivors. Drones can provide additional help with 3D images of the collapse site.
During aftershocks, the search for survivors “is very dangerous for rescue teams because everything collapses,” says Karsten Berns, computer scientist and chair of the Robotic Systems Chair at the Technical University of Rhineland-Palatinate in Kaiserslautern-Landau. This is something autonomous systems should improve on.
What can rescue robots do?
Berns is an expert in the field of robotic earthquake rescue. In 2016, his team was part of a project similar to CURSOR. The robots used in the ICARUS project were also designed to facilitate relief work, including small vehicles tracked with infrared sensors and large bulldozer-like robots that can move heavy rubble or parts of buildings. They are operated from a distance of 1 kilometer to ensure that no excavator operator is in danger while a camera tells the control center what the robot ‘sees’.
Robots that can enter collapsed houses have been equipped with gas sensors: explosions from damaged gas pipes can pose a serious risk.
Both Berns’ robots and the newer ones in the CURSOR project are prototypes developed by researchers and tested in individual presentations. None of these machines can help locate victims buried in the zone of the Turkish-Syrian earthquake. Production for use in real disasters is still some way off. Many questions remain: who will pay for the production of expensive machines, who pays the bill for transportation to seismic zones? No one in the investigation has the funds, Berns told DW, adding that this is where the industry comes in.
Robot or rescue dog?
A clear advantage of rescue dogs is that they are not just prototypes, but can be used in the here and now. Rescue dogs are on the scene looking for survivors under the rubble in Turkey and Syria. Dogs can smell sweat, hormones, blood, feces, or even people’s breath. When they smell someone collapsed under the rubble, they bark and kick on the spot.
Unlike rescue robots, they need neither electricity nor the internet but only water and food. And the robots are not yet sophisticated enough to beat the nose of a good sniffer dog, says Berns — at this point, the German shepherd is still better. Robots do have some advantages though, he concedes. They can transmit images and can be steered to a precise location.
While working on the ICARUS project, Berns and his team thought about using technology to automate the decision process which buildings to send rescuers to. But specialists with real-life experience soon talked them out of the idea, warning that any such decision was already hard enough for a human expert. “There are people under the rubble who are happy that someone is coming, and the experts know that they can’t save them,” Berns says.
If the danger of collapse is too big, the rescue team might have to decide to leave trapped people behind so as not to endanger the rescuers’ lives. You can’t leave that decision to a robot.