As the July 7 bombings in London have so devastatingly illustrated, disaster relief is an arduous task, one that is carried out mainly by humans (and trained dogs), communicating face-to-face or by phones and walkie-talkies. Robots may provide limited support for search and rescue activities and are typically remotely operated by a separate team of humans, but such robots can be difficult to control.
To help robots become more helpful to humans during rescue operations, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have developed virtual hazardous environments that they are demonstrating at the International RoboCup Federation's RoboCup 2005 competition at the INTEX Exhibition Center in Osaka, Japan, through July 19. The goal of the annual RoboCup competitions, which have been in existence since 1997, is to produce a team of soccer-playing robots that can beat the human world champion soccer team by the year 2050. As part of that program, teams of robots also compete in a search-and-rescue category.
Michael Lewis, associate professor in Pitt's Department of Information Science and Telecommunications; Jijun Wang, a graduate student in the department; and Carnegie Mellon researchers Illah Nourbakhsh and Katia Sycara will demonstrate their virtual environments in the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) competition, which takes place in portable disaster arenas designed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to replicate the hazards and difficulties encountered by robots in real disaster environments. The demonstration will use exact models of these arenas as well as models of NIST's Nike silo robotic test site and an office building damaged in the Kobe earthquake to provide a range of environments.
Based on the Unreal game engine, the Pitt simulation provides realistic graphics and accurate physics to duplicate the problems and challenges faced by operators of real search and rescue robots. The operator's interface and overhead views of the arena will be displayed next to an immersive cave where the audience can follow the robots as they search for victims.
The simulation is available at http://usl.sis.pitt.edu/ulab/usarsim_download_page.htm and more information about the demonstration is available at www.isd.mel.nist.gov/projects/USAR. For more information on the RoboCup competition, visit www.robocup.org.
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