Some say ‘bots without borders’ will revolutionize the way humanitarian assistance is delivered. If so, is there a danger of taking the ‘human’ out of ‘humanitarian’ assistance?
Imagine there’s been an earthquake in a remote mountain village. The roads are washed out and the only way to bring in supplies is by foot over a treacherous mountain pass. Then imagine you’ve got an assistant: a robotic quadruped the size of a large dog, capable of navigating uneven ground and able to help carry supplies.
To many humanitarians, the idea that robots will play a significant role in emergency response may seem a bit far-fetched, an idea more suited to science-fiction fantasy than humanitarian realities.
But there are some who see a promising future for robotic humanitarian machines. And it may not be that far away. “Perhaps even within the next 20 years,” says Robert Richardson, a robotics expert with the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, “we might see systems that, while not replacing humans, can act as a sidekicks during a humanitarian response.”
Consider ‘Big Dog,’ a robotic quadruped developed by the United States-based Boston Dynamics. The current version is noisy, rather frightening and its range is limited. But it can march up steep hills in snow and right itself when pushed over.
And this is just one example. There are numerous robotic creatures being developed that walk, crawl, roll, fly and even swim. They are mostly developed to go to places too difficult or dangerous for humans: inside volcanoes to predict the next eruption, into combat or deep underwater. At any given point in oceans around the globe, underwater drones operated by Rutgers University in the United States track ocean temperatures and currents that could help predict the intensity of storms. Meanwhile, an Israeli company is working on a remote-controlled ambulance drone designed to evacuate soldiers during heavy fighting.
The idea of using robots for humanitarian action is nothing new. For years, they have been used to disable bombs and landmines. More recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have begun playing a role in disaster recovery. During Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, small battery-powered helicopter drones were used to survey damage, take photos and show the world the devastation.
So far, technological and cost limitations have hindered their practical application in disaster zones. After an earthquake and tsunami devastated north-eastern Japan in March 2011 and led to a nuclear power plant failure, reconnaissance robots made in Japan and in the United States were used to search for chemical, biological or radiological anomalies, according to the IFRC’s World Disasters Report 2013.
However, many of the robots deployed could not be used for long, as the amount of debris and high levels of radiation soon rendered them inoperable. Japan is working on the development of tough, mobile biped robots that can tolerate such inhospitable environments while a United States military research agency has offered a US$ 2 million prize for companies that can build a robot capable of replacing rescue workers in situations such as Fukushima.
When it comes to UAVs, there are other limitations. “In the smaller unmanned air vehicles, it’s all about battery power,” says Richardson. “In terms of flying from point a to point b, it’s fairly straightforward. But when you start talking about taking objects from one place to another, it is a different story.” Advances in nanotechnology are helping to make cameras, micro-chips and circuits smaller and smaller. But for the moment, potentially useful tools such as infrared sensors or night vision are not practical because of their size, weight and cost.
Most likely, experts say, it will be consumer markets such as the toy industry that will bring costs down via mass production. When and if technological and cost barriers are breached, the advantages to humanitarians could be immense, proponents argue. Robotic devices could work tirelessly without sleep, lift heavy weights or withstand high temperatures.
Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence, a computer’s ability to ‘think’ and ‘see’ (to identify objects and understand their environment) have led to cars that drive themselves, ‘ag-robots’ able to harvest crops, and even have a more human touch. In Japan, a pioneer of industrial robotics, ‘caring’ robots also help elderly or sick people lie down or get out of bed — and even provide emotional comfort.
Bots without borders
But robots also raise serious questions for humanitarians. If robots or drones are sent to conduct assessments or deliver aid in places that are too dangerous for humanitarian workers, could that undermine the notion that real flesh-and-blood humanitarian workers should be able to safely access people in need?
And how will these robots affect the decisions made by the humans who control them? Drones and robots may allow humanitarians to see further and do more, but could they also lead to excessive use of remote-control action, in which a drone over-flight takes the place of direct, human intervention?
And will people accept and trust the help brought by drones or robotic devices, especially if it’s unclear who is operating these devices? In conflict zones, might the use of drones by humanitarian workers lead to suspicion if military surveillance and even armed drone attacks are taking place in the same areas and already causing psychological tension?
Given these questions, it’s understandable that many humanitarians are wary. But Patrick Meier, a leading analyst of humanitarian technologies, says perceptions about drones may change in time. “UAVs, or drones, have a very strong military connotation for many of us,’’ he notes. “But so did space satellites before Google Earth brought satellite imagery into our homes.”
Richardson agrees. “If you were to go into some humanitarian hotspot now with robots following you, it would seem very odd,” he says. “But once they are seen more widely, once you have more civilian drones doing things like crop inspection and various other tasks, then it will be more acceptable… but of course it depends on the environment you are going into.”
Illlustration ©Pat Masioni/IFRC
“If you were to go
into some humanitarian
hotspot now with robots following you, it would
seem very odd. But
they are seen more
once you have
more civilian drones
doing things like crop
inspection and various
other tasks, then it will
be more acceptable.”