Robots are becoming more important to search and rescue operations. But the way they communicate with their operators is not always best. Most robots have to use high-frequency radio or a tethered cord for this function. The former is great for transmitting lots of data like video, but doesn't transmit well through underground locations or heaps of rubble and steel. Tethers don't suffer interference but the person operating the robot has to be careful the cord doesn't get damaged.
WFS Defense and Allen-Vanguard, two British companies, said they will jointly develop a robot that communicates better using low-frequency signals, in a project called Wireless Underground Robots for First Responders (WURFR).
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Low-frequency signals, which are already used to communicate with submarines because they can pass through water, move well through materials that would block a high-frequency Bluetooth or cell phone transmitter. And because rescue operations don't necessarily require high-def video, the researchers used the low frequency signals to transmit video at about five frames per second. In this case, it was applied to rescue robots.
The robot can also act as a repeater for underground voice communications.
There is one limitation pertinent to urban settings. The robot can hear signals at 100 meters or more in a radio-quiet place, such as a tunnel in a rural area. But a subway tunnel, for example, has a lot of electricity running through wires and the rails. That can interfere with the signal and reduce its effective ranges to 30 meters.
But even with that it's a great example of updating an old method with new technology - and making life a little easier for the men and women who are first on the scene in a disaster.
Image: United States Navy