Three Ways Robots Can Help Us Deal With Environmental Catastrophes

by Max Frankel

In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in extreme weather events and environmental disasters — costing us money, and far more importantly, human lives.

Some have been natural (or indirectly caused by humans due to climate change), and others, like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have been directly caused by us.

With scientists warning that the frequency of wildfires, floods, drought and other catastrophes will only increase as the planet warms, engineers are now focusing on how to use robots and other mechanical gadgets to aid in disaster response. Some of these bots vacuum up oil, some sort rubble and rescue earthquake survivors, and some help battle wildfires. Here’s a look at three of the coolest robotic defenders, both in use and on the horizon.

Illustration: John MacNeill

Firebug: Right now in Colorado, the Waldo Canyon Wildfire is burning out of control. As of Thursday, 30,000 people had been evacuated and firefighters had only 5% of the blaze contained.

Enter the firefighting robot army. Three groups — one at University of Magdeburg-Stendal in Germany, an American duo, and the makers of the Segway — are all working on a revolutionary and potentially life saving technology.

The German group has plans for an insect-inspired bot called the OLE. The Saint-Bernard sized bugs are covered in fireproof armor and carry sensors that help them find fires. Once they get to the heat source, they can spray it with water or other fire extinguishing materials. The bots have legs instead of wheels, helping them to navigate over downed trees, rocks, and other forest impediments that rolling machines would have trouble with and lets them get to fires faster. (Interestingly, these OLE’s look kind of like Pine Beetles, the ferocious bugs wreaking havoc on western forests.)

Marching into battle alongside the OLE’s (and possibly a lot sooner) could be Segway’s design. Armed with a water cannon that can launch up to 10 gallons per second and Segway’s motors that let it travel up to 18mph, this robot is the heavy artillery of robo-wildfire fighting. Though it’s fast, it’s wheels make it less maneuverable than the OLE; however, this bot has the ability to haul injured or exhausted human firefighters out of harm’s way.

Behind the OLE and the Segway bot, a transformer-like robot could be clearing trees at a frenzied pace, creating the firebreaks that are so vital to containing a blaze. Though the robot looks like something out of science fiction, its creators have already built a prototype. The robot uses its four arms and massive cutting blades to completely deforest an area rapidly. Clearly, these bots could be dangerous for forests if used the wrong way. But in emergency scenarios they could help save thousands of lives and homes.

Illustration: Hsu Sean

Splashdown: The Obama Administration is in favor of offshore drilling for oil in the Arctic, despite the fact that there is no infrastructure in place to deal with an oil spill if one occurred.

Clearly, not drilling in such a sensitive place is preferred. But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about how to address a mess if companies do start operating there.

Designer Hsu Sean has envisioned a unique design that eliminates the need to use big, expensive, complex machinery to put chemical dispersants into the water. Sean’s design uses oil degrading bacteria housed in side of a robot-vacuum vessel to treat oil spills without releasing nasty chemicals that secondarily pollute the water. The devices also contain a sonic emitter that drives marine wildlife away, helping to steer them clear of the oil slick.

The best part is that the devices can be deployed via helicopter and simply dropped into the ocean, thereby limiting the need for a response fleet and the necessary support infrastructure.

Search and Rescue: Unlike fire and oil spills, many disasters can’t be dealt with until they are over. For disaster response to things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, the most important thing is finding and rescuing survivors in piles of unstable, toxic, or even radioactive rubble. There is no shortage of robots ready to help out:

There’s no substitute for good planning to prevent disasters — whether it be in how we build our communities or take actions to mitigate climate change. But we still need innovations like this to help us out when we inevitably face a catastrophe.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center For American Progress.

7 Responses to Three Ways Robots Can Help Us Deal With Environmental Catastrophes

  1. Zetetic says:

    On a somewhat related note…here is Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson admitting that AGW/ACC is real and caused by human activity, but that we should all just adapt to it so that Exxon Mobile can keep making profits.
    —> Exxon CEO calls climate change engineering problem

    Curiously he doesn’t seem to be offering to pay for such adaptations himself. I wonder who (cough…taxpayers….cough) he expects to pay for this “adaption” so that Exxon Mobile can keep making their record profits?

  2. Firefighting drones … what could go wrong with that?

    We’d likely be much better off if this misguided firefighting mentality could be limited to defending the immediate areas around structures, and leaving the backcountry completely alone.

  3. Thomas Cheney says:

    Some areas of the backcountry are used for timber production so that needs to be considered when making fire management decisions. Mind you there needs to be a lot of fuel removal on the western half of the continent. I agree with your general direction though that ecological restoration would help deal with fire severity.

  4. These are fatuous toys for our amusement.

    Or we could adopt a scientific eco-technocracy and immediately begin acting like we want to inhabit this planet for a few more generations.

  5. publius2012 says:

    As Kunstler says, this is “an ethos of wishful thinking that all the problems of mankind will yield to technological rescue remedies… The basic message is: the world is hopelessly fucked up but thank God for technology. There is not even a dim apprehension that many of the aforementioned vexations originate in technology itself, and its blowbacks. Alas, this is about the best that the American intelligentsia can do right now, collectively, and it explains why we have such uniformly impotent and clueless leadership across the board.”

  6. bill mckibben says:

    can we have a robot that closes the barn door once the horses are already out?

  7. prokaryotes says:

    I think the main problem is scaling and reliability. Though maybe it is a good idea to start observing dry forests for signs of fire.

    Drones can do this and data collected can also be used to assess developments with our precious carbon sinks.