Robots to the rescue

March 24, 2020

Interdisciplinary GW4 researchers discussed how robots could help to tackle both natural and man-made disasters.

Funded through the GW4 Crucible programme, the project Robots for Disasters: Trust and Resilience Under Pressure examines the opportunities and challenges for the use of robots in a range of disastrous events and environments. As part of this research, a workshop was held on Thursday 27th February in Bristol. It brought together GW4 researchers across a range of disciplines and external partners to build networks and establish new research collaborations.

This meeting marked the beginning of a new multidisciplinary network of academics and industry practitioners interested in this field. The project team, including researchers from Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities led lively discussions around the concepts of trust and resilience in utilising robots to tackle disasters. Both natural and man-made disasters were considered; ranging from floods and earthquakes to fires and nuclear radiation leaks; and from densely populated high-rise urban environments to search and rescue in rugged outdoors terrain.

Autonomous robot systems are already developed and deployed across a range of industry sectors in specific, controlled conditions. Attendees examined how robots could be best used in uncontrolled environments such as hazardous disaster scenarios, where there is a higher level of interaction with humans and unpredictable environmental variables, so the potential for unexpected and/or undesirable results is also greater.

Disaster response is characterised by its urgency and stressfulness for human teams on the ground working alongside (multi-)robot systems. In such situations, humans commonly rely on quick, intuitive decision-making with often limited information. The workshop encouraged attendees to explore how their future collaborative research could address the themes identified by the EPSRC Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Call. Specifically, the implications for trust and resilience of robot systems in these pressured disaster scenarios.

Four main topics emerged from the workshop: user requirements, disaster lifecycle, trust and ethics, and human-robot teams. Research questions were developed to feed into a future position paper setting out the new network’s agenda.

The group agreed a multidisciplinary perspective is required to develop the social and technical foundations of effective human-robot disaster response before widespread real-world deployment. This and future findings from the research group will be of great interest to stakeholders including emergency services, civil contingency planners, engineering firms and others.

GW4 project team: Edmund Hunt, Avelie Stuart, Laura Colebrooke, Alexia Zoumpoulaki