Camera one pans out as the injured victim is lowered from a helicopter to the blue truck that waits on the ground below. The music builds. His body swings with the wind, narrowly missing the bed of the truck. Finally, he is lowered to safety–but he is not safe yet. The victim must reach the hospital across the body of water, but the bridge has fallen. Enter the robot fleet.
While this scene could open the next installment of Transformers, it actually describes the real-life creation of engineering professors Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim. Kumar and Yim, who in connection with the Defense Advanced Projects research Agency (DARPA), are heading a University of Pennsylvania team to create a fleet of autonomous robots that could provide global disaster relief and assistance.
The researchers have built one hundred scale models of what would be flat-top robotic boats the size of standard shipping containers. Once deployed, the boats can travel to a set location, and interlock using a hook-and-tether mechanism to form an above-water platform of any shape and size.
In order to avoid a literal crash-and-burn of the platform, Kumar and Yim needed to find a way for the robots to “see” each other. Each boat has been equipped with a marking, similar to a QR code that can be scanned using any smart-phone. Using these markings, a camera system transmits information to on-board computers which enable the robots to perceive their location and the location of their ro-buddies.
“We give them a structure, and then each boat figures out where to go and in what sequence to go to make that structure,” Yim said.
The real boats would rely on GPS to find each other, and could form temporary bridges, provide assistance during oil spills, or be used as a landing surface for sea-rescue much like much like US NAVY Aircraft Carriers.
The project, a leg of DARPA’s Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP), aims to provide relief without relying on local infrastructure, which would free military vessels to perform other tasks with greater efficiency.
Further research must be conducted to determine how the TEMP fleet will handle the stress of large waves and bad weather at sea, but budget constraints leave full-scale development of these human helping ‘bots up in the air.