At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) in Vancouver, Honda has revealed a prototype disaster relief robot. Named E2-DR, it can walk, climb stairs and navigate debris.
One driver behind the rapid advances in robotics and autonomous systems is safety. In emergency and disaster situations in factories or power plants, it’s often the lives of first responders that are put at risk. Understandably, researchers are keen to develop an alternative.
But building a robust robot that’s easy to deploy, capable of navigating debris and able to operate in harsh conditions is a difficult process. In 2013, following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan, Honda set about developing a bipedal robot that could withstand that kind of environment. Two years later the company released two papers detailing plans for walking, climbing bots.
It is only now, in a paper titled “Development of Experimental Legged Robot for Inspection and Disaster Response in Plants”, that we can see the culmination of those years of development. Honda has also unveiled a prototype of the new disaster relief robot, named E2-DR.
Developing a disaster response robot
According to Honda’s research paper, a robot with ambitions to assist in a disaster zone needs to have functionality that includes:
- Three-dimensional movement to deal with stairs, stepladders and vertical ladders with minimum size cages including transitions between ladders and steps
- The ability to move through narrow spaces
- The ability to pass over pipes on the floor
- The ability to pass through closed doors along corridors
- The ability to absorb contact while moving
- The ability to navigate scattered debris
- A perception of the environment for planning and monitoring
- A system that prevents a catastrophic fall when robot loses power while moving in a high place such as stairs and ladders
Honda’s E2-DR goes some way towards achieving those targets. At 1.68 meters high and 85 kilograms, it’s tall and rugged enough to offer its remote pilot a useful view of the surroundings. And with a width of just 25cm, it’s capable of squeezing through narrow gaps and shortcut passages.
A 1000-Wh lithion-ion battery allows for an hour and a half of operating time. The E2-DR can withstand 20 minutes of rain, dust and temperatures between -10 and 40 °C. In terms of durability, Honda says the E2-DR can stand up if it loses balance, but more needs to be done to allow it to recover from a serious fall.
Honda plans for the wireless tools of the future
One of the most interesting aspects is the approach Honda has taken to how the robot will interact with its environment. Although E2-DR has a basic ability to grip in order to climb and generally aid its mobility, the development team expects it to perform most tasks wirelessly with the help of external tools.
The paper states that “As for manipulation tasks, we assume that special tools with wireless communication designed for robots can be used. Therefore the proposed robot does not need to have dexterous hands but only needs to have the ability to grasp the tools and structures in environments such as a crossbar of a ladder to move.”
Honda’s E2-DR prototype is a long way from the finished article, but there’s no doubting its many commercial, life-saving applications once the technology has been perfected.