After earthquakes or other natural or man-made disasters first responders rush to collapsed buildings to find and extricate possible survivors as fast as possible, often bringing their own health and safety in danger. Therefore, the European- and Japanese-funded security project CURSOR has developed technological solutions such as robots, drones and advanced information and communication technologies to speed up these operations and to make them safer.
In the face of a natural or man-made disaster, urban search and rescue teams and other first responders like police, medical units or civil protection race against the clock to locate survivors within the critical 72-hour timeframe (Golden Hours), facing challenges such as instable structures or hazardous environments but also insufficient situational awareness – all resulting in lengthy search and rescue (SaR) processes. Also, ‘the equipment available to many relief organisations is often not as modern as we would like,’ says Tiina Ristmäe from THW (Technical Relief Organisation, Germany), the coordinator of CURSOR (Coordinated use of miniaturised robotic equipment and advanced sensors for search and rescue operations).
To tackle this, a consortium of 14 project partners from First Responder Organisations, research institutions and SMEs (Small and medium-sized enterprises) have worked together since September 2019 to develop a CURSOR SaR kit that is modular, easy and fast to deploy, speeds up the detection of survivors trapped in collapsed buildings and improves working conditions for first responders. Now, in February 2023, the project comes to an end and is able to demonstrate an impressive set of drones, mini-robots called SMURFs (Soft Miniaturised Underground Robotic Finders) and geophones additionally to a system that brings all inputs together in a common, aggregated, comprehensive operational picture to support prioritisation of actions during SaR missions.
CURSOR on the ground and in the air
Drones are increasingly used in Search and Rescue Operations, mainly to obtain information about the affected area and to provide first responders with situational awareness of the disaster site. The drones involved in the CURSOR SaR Kit are commercially available models that have been selected and adapted to the specific requirements of the project and first responders. Thanks to these drones, first responders not only get an accurate and fast visualisation of the disaster scene but also have the facility to transport our mini-robots to the site. Moreover, drones enable remote operations which play a significant role in increasing the first responder’s safety. In the disaster zone of a collapsed building, the SMURFs can explore areas providing search and rescue teams with information on human presence, enable two-way audio-video communication and indicate whether the victim is alive or dead. All this information will help first responders to make decisions and plan their resources effectively. SMURFs, as a remotely operated technology, will also play a significant role in improving the safety of FRs during the mission. SMURFs are equipped with cameras, infrared cameras, microphones and speakers, as well as a special technology called Sniffer. This artificial nose, which was developed in cooperation between CEA-list and the University of Manchester, is able to detect victims and gives a probability of whether people are still alive. Krishna Persaud, who led the work in Manchester, describes Sniffer as follows: ‘The idea behind the sniffer is to detect live victims and to prioritise search and rescue accordingly. We are doing this with detecting volatile organic compounds that come from the human body and that are typical for live victims. The sensors built into sniffer can distinguish between different sets of molecules and can therefore give a probability if the victim is still alive.’
Geophones are already existing technology and often used in search and rescue deployments. In the CURSOR project the seismic sensors, which detect tapping sounds under debris, are improved. For example, the CURSOR geophones allow better filtering options and the sensor data is easier to understand and interpret.
A question that is often being asked is whether these technologies will replace rescue dogs or other existing search and rescue technology. Tiina Ristmäe explains: ‘CURSOR SaR Kit provides first responders a wide range of additional options and are not meant to replace rescue dogs or other existing equipment. Search and Rescue missions are complex, difficult and often dangerous deployments, it is only beneficial if first responders have more options for doing their job efficiently and safely.’
Networks and communication technologies, CURSOR Command & Control system
CURSOR SaR Kit has a module-based design, which means that the whole SaR Kit can be deployed but also only single components of it (e.g. only geophones) can be deployed. Nevertheless, the decision-making process is being facilitated by technologies that fuse all information together and analyse it using intelligent algorithms.
Another challenging aspect of search and rescue missions is to bring all information from new technologies together in an incident management and common operational picture system to enable decisions to be taken quicker by having a concise overview of all information streams. This has been solved in CURSOR with the development of advanced software to bring a common operation picture to the command-and-control centre.
A crucial element in this process of bringing everything together is the network aspect since communications are often down after large-scale earthquakes or other disasters. This is tackled by in CURSOR project by including technologies to set up their own network. This work has been led by ICCS, our Greek partner where also the scientific and technical coordinator, Dimitra Dionysiou is located.
Involvement of first responders
Research projects such as CURSOR require strong and continuous involvement of first responders. There are complex, expensive and innovative technologies developed for USAR first responders, and to meet the operational needs and match the first-responder requirements their involvement is essential.
In CURSOR first responders defined the master scenario which describes the setting and gives background information. Gap analysis followed the scenario development – what kind of technology gaps FR are they facing when fulfilling their tasks during the SaR mission. Those gaps are then defined into technologies that are needed and for all the technologies, first responder requirements were determined. During the technology development phases the first responder’s main role is to test the technologies and give feedback about their functionalities. In CURSOR, iterative testing methodology was used, so before entering the next development phase, a field test was organised together with FR to evaluate the technologies. This allowed us to react efficiently to the design mistakes or other aspects requiring improvement.
Technologies developed in CURSOR are for USAR first responders; they are the end users of the CURSOR SaR Kit. Therefore, it is obvious that they are continuously involved. But the involvement requires continuous learning from each other in research consortia, open and honest communication and understanding how other partners work. In CURSOR this mutual understanding has created productive collaboration between partners resulting with end-user guided and driven technology development.
Other possible use cases
We can also envision other possible use cases for the technologies developed, as the SMURF body can easily be used to mount other sensors. For example, it would be possible to detect hazardous gases using the SMURF body but using different sensors. There are use cases in law enforcement to use robots instead of police officers in case of terrorist attacks. Other applications include environmental monitoring in scenarios where detection of chemical emissions or pollutants is of concern, together with security applications for detection of trace substances. Also, the sniffer module can be mounted, e.g. with flammable gas sensors to prevent first responders entering explosive atmospheres, or toxic gases (carbon monoxide, etc.). Although first responders can wear protective equipment against such gases, it is not the case for dogs. Such sensors could be used to check whether the search area place is ‘safe’ (at least with regard to gases) before sending in the search dogs.
Contractual conditions do not allow development of a market-ready CURSOR SaR Kit. So, at the project end we have prototypes with different levels of technical readiness meaning that some of them require further research (like SMURFs) or only minor developments and manufacturing (drones). Still, all of the technologies require further resources to put them in the hands of first responders. Ristmäe: ‘The aim of the CURSOR project was to scientifically confirm if this kind of complex integrated technology system will be beneficial during USAR deployments. That has been achieved during the project lifetime. Now the next step is to see if it makes sense to continue with the whole SaR Kit or choose specific components for the next steps. It is more realistic that we will continue with some of the single components in a successor project. This is a decision made together with consortium partners considering their resources to continue with technology development.
About the Author
Tiina Ristmäe coordinator of the CURSOR project and a senior researcher at THW. She leads the project with her considerable experience with developing innovative technologies with strong end-users’ involvement.