A group of researchers has developed a new life-saving application for robotics, and this comes in the form of robots acting as guide dogs for firefighters.

Robotics engineers from the Sheffield Hallam University and the King's College London have come up with a new robotic system that could prove helpful to firefighters who move through smoke-filled buildings.

With this small mobile robot that comes with tactile sensors leading the way in zero-visibility conditions, firefighters can save crucial seconds and also identify obstacles and objects more easily.

The robots are tethered to firefighters by a leash and the vibrations that are transmitted through the vein could hint firefighters about the shape, size and stiffness of objects that the robot finds ahead of them.

Thrishantha Nanayakkara from King's College London said that they have come up with important advances that involve interactions between robots and humans and applied these to scenarios where every second is crucial. Nanayakkara added that the robotic system they have designed could be a helpful addition to firefighting capabilities.

Although firefighters have a map of buildings, they have to grope their way once smoke has already affected the visibility of the area. They have to feel their way along a wall or be guided by ropes that have earlier been laid by another firefighter. Because firefighters have only a limited time before their oxygen supply runs out, there is a need for something that can help them move fast and easily.

With the new robotic system, a firefighter would have to use a special sleeve that covers his entire arm. The vibrators would convert the signals that were sent back by the robot into detailed information that the firefighter is trained to interpret.

The robot can also detect resistance or hesitation from the firefighter, which could prompt it to adjust its pace. It is also programmed to predict the next actions of its followers depending on the way they move and based on their previous actions.

In trials involving blind-folded participants that were guided by the robot, it was found that the robots could detect the level of trust of the firefighter.

"With the use of robots in emergency situations still in its relative infancy, it is crucial to develop an understanding of how robotics interact with people and how those communications can be explored," said Heath Reed from the Sheffield Hallam University and senior designer of the system.

Photo: Andrew Magill | Flickr

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