If it seems a lot of new robots are designed for 'search and rescue', there's a good reason for it

If you read much robotics news, you’ll hear a lot about “search and rescue” applications. It seems to be the first thing that engineers mention when discussing potential uses for a new design.

There is certainly nothing wrong with search and rescue, it’s a worthy application that will likely save a lot of lives. However, given all of the potential applications for robotics it seems to have a disproportional focus and there are a couple of good reasons for that.

The first reason is actually a couple million good reasons. The DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, CA is happening this June 5th and 6th. It is expected to be the largest gathering of robotics engineers, companies and labs ever held. The headline event, the end of a multi-year DARPA challenge, is a robotics competition with a two million dollar prize.

To win the prize robots will be required to drive a tractor to a simulated disaster site, climb over rubble and maneuver through or around other obstacles, cut through a wall with a drill, navigate through a series of doors, turn a pressure valve and generally navigate through and overcome obstacles and challenges.

So, those who are interested in international robotics glory and vast quantities of development money have been focusing on the goals of the competition - urban search and rescue.

However, there is another good reason for the focus on search and rescue; It’s a bit like starting a test by answering the hardest question first.

Let’s say that you build a robot that can learn to navigate in unfamiliar terrain, drive a vehicle, send reconnoissance information back to its human counterparts, clear rubble, operate machinery, navigate through narrow spaces, locate objects and/or people, overcome new and shifting obstacles, operate in chaotic and hazardous conditions withstand heat, cold, wind and water and perform complex tasks such as identifying and disarming bombs.

Once you have that, how hard is it to reprogram it or create new robots that can do things like wash dishes, operate kitchen appliances, go to the grocery store and do sentry/security duty? Any of those things and a thousand more mundane human tasks would be child’s play to a robot that can handle urban search and rescue.

So, when you read about dozens of new robots all focused on ‘search and rescue’ don’t assume that robots are limited or that the technology isn’t moving along quickly. Read it as ’this technology is about ready to explode into just about every area of daily life.’

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