October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

When a mission is too dangerous for humans, call in the robots ...

Robin R. Murphy
MIT Press

Robots are becoming an integral part of managing global calamities as they can be sent into dangerous regions without us fearing their untimely demise. Disaster Robotics by Robin Murphy is the first comprehensive account of the use of robots in such calamities. The book outlines why we need to design specific robots for this perilous work as well as evaluating the missions in which they have already been used. Finally, it provides some suggestions for future research in the field.

It starts by explaining that disaster robot must be more advanced than other robots as they have to go into unchartered territories. They also have to be wirelessly contactable in any and every situation – we only have to look at our mobile phone coverage to realise what a challenge this is!

The second chapter focuses on the historical usage of disaster robots such as on the fallen World Trade Centre in 2001 and on the Finale Emilia Earthquake in Italy in 2012.  It also evaluates the success of each of these missions and discusses the three sources of breakdown in disaster robots including environmental issues, operating system malfunctionand human error. The flow chart provided is an excellent tool for quickly understanding the possible causes of such breakdowns.

The next chapters look at the different types of disaster robot – those that are deployed on the ground, in the air and in the sea, and how they have to be designed differently to suit their environment. The final chapter looks at how to test the functionality and utility of a particular robot during the design process and, finally, how to evaluate its performance. This last section adds to the book significantly as it shows the developmental side of robotics rather than simply providing an evaluation of the field. As such we feel privy to the hidden world of robot development.

The structure of the book makes for an effective teaching tool. Each chapter is clearly headed and has a set of learning objectives at the start. The future orientated questions at the end of each chapter provide interesting discussion points and lots of food for thought around the topic. Although it’s an effective teaching tool, it is still engaging to a reader with a basic interest in engineering as it contains many human-centric tales of how theses robots interact.

Overall, Disaster Robots is a comprehensive guide to the growing field of robot rescue missions. It provides enough detail to be considered an excellent introductory academic textbook whilst still being enjoyable for those readers with a non-academic interest in the field.