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Firefighter's guardian angel is a palm size robot

Rescuing the rescuer will be committed to history as fire and rescue squads join forces with teams of 'canary test' robots, which reduce on-the-job dangers and search times - ultimately saving lives.

Industrial fires, explosions and chemical contamination are dangerous circumstances fire and rescue teams face on a daily basis. However small explorer robots, currently being created by Sheffield Hallam University, will soon be the first team to enter buildings to assess for structural soundness, dangerous airborne chemicals and locate small but smoke generating industrial fires. Ordinarily, these instances could not only impede rescue of casualties through time delay, but also endanger the rescuer.

Jacques Penders, a senior research fellow at Sheffield Hallam, is working in partnership with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and four other European organisations, to develop two mini robotic miracles. Named the 'Guardians' and the 'Viewfinders', both robots are just 16cm in diameter.

Jacques said: "In fire and rescue there are many hidden dangers, such as structural soundness of buildings, or when thick smoke is masking the rescuers entrance or escape route, which can severely impair their senses. The Guardian and Viewfinder robots will assist in the search and rescue by ensuring the communication link and helping the human team to estimate the safety of the path they are taking and the best direction to follow."

Time is critical, especially at search and rescue incidents. Initially fire crews might be committed to the incident to lay out guidelines and mark out a route to the fire or casualties, and, just as importantly, a safe route back to the outside.

Unfortunately this basic process can lead to tragedies such as at Gillender Street, London in 1992 when two fire fighters died. The victims became confused in the smoke and lost their exit route. They couldn't be found due to thick smoke when their air ran out. The Guardian robots could help avoid this situation.

The intelligent Guardians work in large teams of thirty, communicating independently to each other and the firefighters; similarly to a mobile phone connection. They distance themselves as beacons, depending on the signal strength, to ensure constant contact. The swarm then gleans information from each of their routes to detect fires, human danger and obstacles which are then reported back to the firefighters.

Neil Baugh, Station Manager from South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue said: "It is not like in the movies where rescuers can go straight into a situation and save casualties. As the incident commander I have to ensure the safety of my team first in order to help others. The creation of these robots will help save time, and assist in the safety assessment of the incident. This is vital time we can then spend in rescuing casualties."

The Viewfinder robots use chemical sensors and video cameras to map safe locations for the crew to access in partially destroyed industrial sites, after events such as explosions. Working in a team of three, this information will be communicated back to a central human user point.

Jacques Penders, who works in the Materials and Engineering Research Institute at Sheffield Hallam, concludes: "Terrorism and particularly the London bombings have put pressure on fire and rescue services to be more aware of chemical dangers. But there is a lot of information they need to know, and their full-time job is fighting fires! The ongoing relationship between ourselves and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service will mean we can help by sharing our knowledge with them."

Both projects have been highly commended in the European Commissions' evaluation and began in January 2007. Over the next three years the techniques will be further developed and adjusted for firefighting. These advanced techniques create opportunities that will be transferable into the home, where robots may assist handicapped residents.

Other international partners include Belgium's Royal Military Academy and Space Applications Services. Italy's Galileo Avionica, Universita Degli Studi di Roma and Intelligence for Environment and Security. Poland's Przemyslowy Instytut Automatyki I Pomiarow (Polish institute for robotics) and Greece Eidikos Logariasmos Erevnon Dimokriteiou Panepistimiou Thrakis (University of Thrace); Heinz Nixdorf Institute Padeborn (Germany); ETU University Ankara, Turkey; University JAUME 1 Castellion (Spain); K-Team (Swiss robot manufacturer), Robotnik (Spanish Robot manufacturer) University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Donna Goodwin | alfa
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