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Rescue Bots: Improving Response Robot Infrastructure

Updated: Mar 15

Robots, guided by and alongside humans, locating and rescuing disaster survivors with incredible speed and minimal cost to life. Isn't this a fantastic picture? Let's try to make it a reality.

Big Picture

Wildfires, hurricanes and climate change are periodic components of our news cycle, popping up and receding like clockwork. Humanitarian disasters follow, at home and abroad. Traditional search and rescue teams do fantastic work, but they have limitations and they sometimes put more human lives at risk. There's at least one alternative with potential: we can use machines to minimize casualties and conduct rapid rescue missions. You may cringe at the prospect, thoughts of malfunction and even malicious "hacking" plaguing your mind, but a careful and well-funded approach to response robot infrastructure has a lot to offer us. 

Operative Definitions

  1. Disaster Response Robots (DRR): Robotic systems used for preventing the outspread of disaster damage under emergent situations. Used in search-and-rescue, recovery construction and related activities. 

  2. Search and Rescue: The search for, and provision of aid to, people who are in distress or imminent danger. 

Important Facts and Statistics 

  1. Response robots were first used during the 9/11 attacks. 

  2. The market for DRRs has been growing at a steady rate. 

  3. The frequency of natural disasters has increased over the past 50 years. Infrastructural damage has increased. Deaths have decreased, especially due to better disaster prediction, though remain prevalent. 

Four-Point Plan

(1) Invest in DRR research and development. 

Companies specializing in robotics rarely have incentives to develop DRRs, diverting their focus to more lucrative robots. Despite steady market growth, the DRR industry has yet to really take off. In the short-term, government intervention appears to be necessary. Subsidizing or otherwise incentivizing the development of DRRs could give effective, rapid and safe humanitarian work a massive boon. 

(2) Conduct DRR trials with law enforcement agencies. 

Organizations developing DRRs should partner with federal or local law enforcement in order to run trials to test robots' efficiency and capability, and perhaps develop joint initiatives with human agents. The trials would cover a multitude of situations and a range of robotic roles. Both human-only teams and human-robot partnerships would be tested in order to pinpoint the circumstances that yield the best results. 

(3) Draft a federal code for DRR use. 

Once DRRs are ready to be used, a federal entity must develop guidelines and procedures for rescue agencies to follow in order to prevent illicit or unsafe activity. The code must detail what the robots can and cannot be used for, the exact responsibilities of the people overseeing them, how to respond in the case of malfunction or other mishap, and other regulatory measures. Such a code could be included in a wider series of robotics guidelines, much like the executive guidance on AI recently produced by the Biden Administration. 

(4) Continue to monitor the long-term growth of DRRs. 

Every three years, federal entities that direct funding towards the ongoing research of DRRs should scrutinize the growth of the DRR market and the performance of various DRR producers and users. Funding should then be allocated appropriately. If there is any stagnation in the development or improvement of DRR, an investigation into the causes should be launched, whether privately or by appropriate government entities. 

Why This Initiative Is Important

It's apparent that humanitarian search-and-rescue teams are in need of greater support. There's a lot more we can be doing to minimize disaster-related casualties. Robots present a promising avenue. With sufficient support, they can become a force for immense good in the world. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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