Can robots help Chile in the recovery?

March 4th, 2010

Not two months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, another country faces a similar tragedy. On Saturday, February 28 an 8.8-magnitude earthquake swept through central Chile and its coastal areas leaving millions homeless, close to 800 dead and thousands missing, including 255 Canadians. Professor Goldie Nejat of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering focuses her research on robot-assisted emergency response. We asked her to comment on the recovery efforts taking place in Chile.

1. How long do search efforts usually last after a disaster?

Generally they last between a week and a week and a half starting right after the disaster. It also depends on how large the disaster is, but that is usually the average. The actual timeframe depends on the survival rate, which in all cases drastically drops after the first 72 hours. After the rescue effort comes the recovery stage, which includes clean-up, restoration and the reinstatement of regular services. International aid workers are usually flown in to participate in the rescue effort, as well as the recovery stage. Because they can’t stay in the disaster area forever, time needs to be split appropriately between rescue and recovery.

2. Is it possible for people to survive longer than a week and a half before being rescued?

The law of threes states that a person cannot survive longer than three minutes without air, three hours without shelter from harsh weather, three days without water and three weeks without food. If a person has the proper necessities then, yes, they can survive. For example, in Haiti there were people found after two weeks and even one person after four weeks. The main reason that people can survive this long is that they have access to water or some form of fluids. For example one of the survivors from Haiti had access to soda.

3. Since it’s so important to rescue people within the first 72 hours of a disaster, how can search efforts be improved?

The objective of my research is to develop mobile robotic systems to provide additional support for rescue teams. After a disaster, there are usually areas that are unreachable due to extreme clutter and rubble, as is often the case with urban disasters. Robots can be used to go through small voids where humans can’t fit, as well as areas deemed too dangerous to enter. These robots can help find victims in debris and ensure the lives of human rescue workers aren’t put at great risk. My research team focuses on developing robots capable of exploring and mapping these cluttered environments to identify victims. Rescue workers are under a lot of stress and can easily become fatigued working in these conditions. Robots can help reduce the stress placed on rescue workers and aid in effectively finding victims in these time-critical scenarios.