On March 2011, a tsunami and earthquake struck the Fukushima Dai-ichi energy plant in Japan, causing a major disaster. Newspapers and television networks showed images of collapsed buildings, tunnels flooded with water and areas subjected to the radiation. As these scenarios place emergency services personnel at great risk using robots could help contain damage and minimize injury or death.
In the last five years, emergency services have deployed several robots in Fukushima to inspect the area and collect data. Some robot surveys were successful while others failed, underlining the pressing need to advance state-of-the-art robotic systems for disaster response.
‘ERL Emergency’ is a civilian, outdoor robotics competition, with a focus on realistic, multi-domain emergency response scenarios. Inspired by the 2011 Fukushima accident, the ERL Emergency Grand Challenge can only be met when land, underwater and flying robots work cooperatively.
The competition itself sees international teams of various disciplines and organisations surveying the scene, collecting data, searching for missing workers and identifying critical hazards, all in a race against the clock. After three successful years under the name of ‘euRathlon’ (www.eurathlon.eu), the latest iteration of the competition takes a step forwards as part of the European Robotics League (ERL), a novel model for competitions funded by the European Commission.
The euRathlon project, which was led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) and coordinated by Professor Alan Winfield, set the roots of the current ERL Emergency competition.
The euRathlon Grand Challenge took place in September last year in Piombino, Italy. Sixteen teams from across Europe travelled to the Tuscan coast to put their robots to the test in land, air and sea, in a competition unlike any other. The winners of the first Grand Challenge were a partnership team formed by Cobham plc (producing the land robot), Universitat de Girona (working in the sea) and ISEP/INESC TEC (with the robot that took to the air).
The competition provides teams with realistic challenges that will test their robot’s ability to face real-world situations, and all ERL Emergency scenarios have been carefully designed by the seven euRathlon consortium partners and reviewed by an advisory board of experts in field robotics. All the experts, including myself, contributed with ideas based on their experience in robotics competitions and in the nuclear and disaster-response sectors.
With all of this in mind, what is the value of organising or participating in a robotics competition? How can an event like this push the development of robotics or help produce the future of autonomous robots for emergency response?
After three years as project manager of the euRathlon competition, I have seen the project create links between the robotics communities of ground, marine and aerial robots, which did not exist before. euRathlon has built up a new community of multi-domain teams for emergency response, and has increased the cooperation between domains and between robots and humans. The competition has also highlighted the importance of autonomy in robots used in disaster-response missions, reducing the risk to human rescue workers.
During my engineering studies I was a member of the robotics team at my university, where I learned to build robots and had a lot fun participating in indoor robotics competitions. The community environment and the team-work were, and still are, terrific.
For me, robotics competitions are not just about testing a robot outside of the laboratory or engaging with an audience. They are events that bring people together, inspire younger generations, and facilitate the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between multiple research groups.
Robotics competitions provide a perfect platform for challenging, developing and showcasing robotics technologies.
I believe that the European Robotics League (ERL), and their three competitions: ERL Service, ERL Industry and ERL Emergency, will provide an even bigger platform and engage not only with a broader robotics community, but also with industry and society.
The launch of the European Robotics League will take place on the 30th of June in Leipzig, Germany, during the RoboCup competition. Come and see how teams and their robots tackle these new challenges!