Keeping Hazmat Professionals Out of Harm's Way

Every morning, I start my day by scouring the news to catch up on issues affecting the robotics industry. It seems that there isn't a day that goes by without a major publication either extolling the virtues of robotics or lamenting with doomsday predictions of robots taking over. Irrespective of one's point of view, the notion of advanced machines capable of performing dangerous and difficult tasks has taken center stage. In my view, we are entering the golden age of robotics, where technological innovations coupled with substantially reduced component costs allow us to deploy robots that can reliably and cost effectively augment human performance to keep humans out of harm's way.

This is particularly relevant and timely for the first responder community, where the physical and emotional toll on both first responders and the communities that they serve can be substantially mitigated by providing first responders with enhanced situational awareness without requiring their physical presence.

The worldwide market for law enforcement robots will be approximately $5.7 billion by 2022, up from $1 billion in 2015, according to Wintergreen Research estimates. That's a pretty significant increase. While robots have been used in law enforcement for years, primarily for bomb disposal, and to a lesser extent for SWAT and other tactical scenarios, hazardous materials (hazmat) professionals have been slow to adopt robotic solutions in part because most robots haven't been designed to address the unique needs of the HAZMAT community . . . until now.

For hazmat professionals, small, man-portable robots can provide important assistance with collecting and analyzing information about hazardous environments well before a response team is suited up to evaluate the scene. These robots can use on-board sensors to conduct tests and relay information back to both the on-site response team as well as off-site experts. This valuable data can expedite the formulation and execution of a response plan and can reduce the amount of time hazmat professionals need to be exposed to dangerous environments. In some cases, the deployment of robots such as our Guardian S mobile IoT platform could be the difference between life and death.

Why now? According to analyst firm IDC, "technological development in artificial intelligence, computer vision, navigation, MEMS sensor, and semiconductor technologies continue to drive innovation in the capability, performance, autonomy, ease of use, and cost-effectiveness of industrial and service robots," said Jing Bing Zhang, research director of worldwide robotics at IDC Asia/Pacific.  

Robots that can perform a variety of observation and data collection functions in hazmat scenarios make it an economically viable and safer solution for hazmat professionals. For those who fear that robots will take over and replace human jobs, many robots are exclusively tele-operated, meaning that they rely on human intelligence, not artificial intelligence, to complete the mission. Artificial intelligence is an exciting and promising technology that will become increasingly useful as time goes on. However, as with all things "artificial," such as artificial sweeteners or artificial light, the artificial version isn't always a direct substitute, sometimes lacking the same characteristics or performance as the natural version. As a team, we fundamentally believes that when it comes to life and death decision-making in unstructured environments, there is no substitute for the wisdom and judgment of humans.

Most hazmat scenarios require a minimum of four people to be suited up on a scene -- two to assess a situation and two on standby to sub in for the others if an incident occurs. These teams are often part of a larger 20-person operation. With the use of portable, tele-operated robots equipped with sensors, critical chemical and environmental data along with real-time video can be obtained from the scene without the need for a person to be physically exposed to the hazardous conditions. Robots can do a variety of assessments, such as testing for chemical compounds or detecting radiation, and transmit the data back to the operators and other off-site experts. This provides the hazmat crew with initial information before they suit up and enter the area, which ultimately enables the team to be better prepared and ultimately more efficient -- saving precious time in the most dangerous situations.

Some robots can carry a variety of advanced sensor arrays that can be customized according to the needs of the customer. Some of these sensors include high-definition video cameras, high-definition still cameras, IR video cameras, stereo cameras, radiation detectors, gas detectors, and a variety of non-destructive testing sensors. Additionally, some can use a wide-range of connectivity solutions, including Wi-Fi, private long-range radios, and LTE cellular networks. Given the nature of hazardous gases, it is important for robots to be enabled to scale certain vertical surfaces, allowing the robot to take readings from different elevations. The versatility of sensors and connectivity options enables hazmat crews to customize their robots according to their unique mission requirements.

One significant barrier to adoption for many first responders is the relatively high historical total cost of ownership of robotics platforms. To address this hurdle, we and an increasing number of other robotics companies offer a Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) option, which requires no up-front hardware costs for the basic robotic platform; provides ongoing maintenance, support, and training; and allows a customer to upgrade at the end of the contract term. Analyst firm IDC predicted that by 2019, 30 percent of commercial service robotic applications will be in the form of a "Robot as a Service" business model. For various public safety agencies including hazmat divisions, lower up-front costs combined with ongoing training and support from the manufacturer will make deployment of robots more viable.

We are at the dawn of the golden age of robotics. More than simply the automation of dull and boring tasks to improve efficiencies, we expect to see explosive growth and adoption over the next decade of human-controlled robotic systems that are capable of performing meaningful work in unstructured environments. And while there is much hype about robots replacing human workers, when robots are designed and deployed that augment rather than replace human performance, everyone benefits. This is especially true for hazmat professionals and other first responders who put their lives on the line every day for the benefit of the communities they serve.

One day soon, the deployment of tele-operated robots will be standard protocol and we will have truly succeeded in helping our first responders get their jobs done more effectively while reducing their personal risk of injury and death.

Ben Wolff is the CEO of Sarcos Robotics, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Posted on May 23, 2017


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