Engineering Kinder, Gentler Rescue Robots

Rescue robots provide a lifeline to disaster victims trapped in tight spaces, but these rugged robots can sometimes seem intimidating, annoying, or even a little creepy to the people they are supposed to help. Researchers at Stanford University and Texas A&M are investigating ways to make these robots more user friendly.

In other words, says Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue of Texas A&M, they want to eliminate the “creep factor”:

“Robots don’t make eye contact. Their tone doesn’t change. When they get closer to people, they start to violate their personal space,” Murphy said. “If you are stuck somewhere for ten hours, and something scares you, or annoys you for long enough, you might start disregarding what it is asking you to do. The term that keeps coming up is ‘creepy.’ People find the robots that are supposed to be helping them creepy.”

Murphy and Stanford’s Clifford Nass have received funding from the National Science Foundation for a three-year project via a $1.2 million grant shared by the universities as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Rescue robots have been in use for more than a decade. The researchers hope to improve current designs by focusing on human-robot interactions, so that the robots can be more useful in law enforcement and even healthcare settings. The current project involves the design of a multi-media “head” attachment (dubbed the “survivor buddy”) that can serve as an interface between trapped victims and their rescuers. A Pixar animator helped design the interface.

The new robot design will possess “social graces” and “garner trust and show respect and expertise,” can maintain eye contact, and will provide access to video conferencing, news, and even music. The researchers plan to test the device in simulated rescue situations.

Watch a video below explaining the work the NSF grant will fund:

Source: National Science Foundation

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