A method borrowed from video gaming can make remote-controlled emergency response robots easier to use – enabling the operator to focus more on the dangerous situations they face.
Armed forces, police and emergency services are increasingly using robots known as unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) in many high-risk tasks such as bomb demolition and search and rescue missions. In such tasks, where time is precious, the people controlling the robots typically spend a great deal of effort to gain a mental picture of the environment they are dealing with.
To reduce the time and strain of this effort, a European research team is adapting a more intuitive control mode from video gaming – known as ‘free look control’ – to emergency response robots.
According to Petter Ögren from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, the technique will enable a more natural interaction with the robot than in current situations where UGVs are sent into burning or collapsed buildings and other places too dangerous for human responders.
Emergency response – no game
About the TRADR project
The project, Long-Term Human-Robot Teaming for Robot-Assisted Disaster Response (TRADR), is funded by the European Union (EU) under the Seventh Framework Programme.
In addition to researchers from KTH, the project involves researchers from Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands and Italy.
For an emergency response robot operator, it’s critical to quickly gain situational awareness – a mental picture of the environment and what’s happening in it. In a burning house, for instance, the operator needs to keep track of which rooms the robot has been in and when it’s time to go upstairs to search the next floor.
With free look control, an operator would interact with a remote-controlled robot in much the same way a gamer does with an avatar in popular first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty, Doom or Halo.
While the standard control mode used in UGVs, known as ‘tank control’, is more straightforward to implement, it requires more concentration by the user. The movements of the robot’s body and cameras are controlled independently of each other by different joysticks linked to different pieces of hardware, according to Ögren.
This means the operator needs to consider the orientation of the robot. With free look control, this is not necessary, because the robot always interprets the joystick’s directional command relative to the camera view. So if the robot is ‘looking’ to the right, the forward control stick will move the robot towards the right.
The robot can also easily move sideways, perpendicular to its direction of view – a technique gamer’s call ‘strafing’. This is a natural way of moving when, for instance, searching an environment for victims.
Putting the robot (and firemen) to the test
To test the system, the researchers teamed up with a fire brigade in Pisa, Italy. According to Ögren, 12 out of the 16 end-users preferred free look control.
One of the tests included searching an indoor industrial environment for two minutes, trying to find as many markers as possible. “Using tank control, the average was 4.5 markers per user. Using free look control, they found an average of 6,” Ögren says.
Next, the team is planning to do a large scale evaluation with firemen, as well as to include robot arm control in the framework.
“We are in a process of discovering what capabilities the rescue workers need, and refining those,” Ögren says. “The biggest challenge is improving the situational awareness of the operator. Our research result is a small step in the right direction.”
Even so, the system could potentially be commercialised within a short time frame, depending on the application. For example, bomb demolition robots that are on the market today – and used by police bomb squads – could also be adapted for use as rescue robots, according to Ögren. “If a manufacturer wanted to add this particular research result to one of their platforms, it could be done within a year,” he says.
– Adapted from KTH News