A robot equiped with tactile sensors providing haptic feedback to a test subject inside a cave

Robots to be firefighters' guide dogs with tactile sensors

Robots equipped with tactile sensors could serve as guide dogs for firefighters in smoked-filled interiors, enabling them to identify objects and obstacles.

The key to the invention is high-tech reins developed by researchers from King’s College London and Sheffield Hallam University, transmitting information about the surrounding terrain through vibrations between the robot and the firefighter’s arm.

To allow the robot to provide detailed haptic feedback, the researchers have designed a special sleeve fitted with electronic micro-vibrators that the firefighter would have to wear. The sensors would also provide information to the robot, interpreting resistance or hesitation on the side of the firefighter to which the robot would adjust.

“We’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts,” said Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London. “Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.”

During tests, blindfolded volunteers were guided by the robot in various settings including a gym and a smoke-filled cave. Running a special algorithm the robot attempted to assess how much the test subjects trusted him. The researchers envision the robots in future would be able to predict the actions of the person following them based on their previous behaviour.

“With the use of robots in emergency situations still in its relative infancy it is crucial to develop an understanding of how robots interact with people and how those communications can be explored,” said Heath Reed, senior designer at Sheffield Hallam University.

“This project paves the way for robotics to be developed in a number of exciting sectors and I would expect the next five years to see some real developments based on our own research.”

Currently, firefighters intervening in conditions with reduced visibility have no other choice but grope their way forward through the smoke along a wall or following ropes laid by the firefighter leading the group.

The scientists believe the tactile robots would not only make interventions simpler but also speed them up. It is crucial in critical situations that actions are performed as efficiently as possible as firefighters have limited oxygen supplies, usually covering only a 20-minute period.

Multiple institutions including the charity Guide Dogs, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service and engineering firm Thales took part in the four-year research project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

“EPSRC support has enabled us to undertake a real breadth of research and given us the scope to explore a range of approaches for human-robot interaction in no-visibility conditions that we simply couldn’t have looked at with other forms of funding,” said Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University. “The outcome has been exciting and not only could help our world-class firefighting services become even more effective in future but may also find application in healthcare, for instance.”

The researchers are now working on a fully operational prototype that could be tested in real-world firefighting conditions.

The team has also developed a tactile language for using robotics in a number of domestic scenarios and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes.

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