A Dog’s Eye View: Robotics For Disaster Relief
Prof. Alex Ferworn and his team develop robotic implements that assist emergency first responders in saving lives (see ‘Race Against Time: Disaster Relief & Urban Search and Rescue). By collaborating with police, firefighters, canine handlers and social scientists, he is able to develop tools that respond to acute needs among Urban Search and Rescue teams.
His CAT (Canine Augmentation Technology) – created in conjunction with UCRT – provides a dog’s eye view of disaster scenes. Dogs can often travel over rugged terrain that humans can’t access. However, “this was a potential problem,” said Ferworn, “because a dog barks when it finds someone. If the human handler can’t see what the dog is barking at, it may be impossible to find the trapped person.”
Ferworn fitted cameras onto the dogs themselves so he could monitor the search progress remotely. He also aimed the cameras behind the dog—so they could produce a map of where the dog had been. This allowed rescuers can follow the path to the victim.
Efforts evolved from improving the search process through image creation into a patented “dogmounted delivery system” called the Canine Remote Delivery System (CRDS)—potentially speeding up the rescue process where supplies (radio, water, medical supplies) can be delivered directly to the victim by the dog.
Following this, Ferworn’s lab contributed to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by developing the “Drop and Explore” (DEX) robot as part of the Canine Assisted Robot Deployment (CARD) system. The DEX robot is activated by a dog’s bark, which deploys the robot and can be used to aid the victim or to survey the area where the rescue will eventually take place. This data is essential to hastening the rescue plan.
N-CART: Hands-on Learning and Online Robotics
N-CART, Prof. Ferworn’s robotics research lab, offers a space where students can operate a remote-controlled bomb disposal robot, disaster response robots, and lots of "junk that could be something else”. Lego Mindstorms™ are used for prototyping. "We believe in the hands-on practice of what we preach," says Ferworn.
He is also developing two Chang certificates: One, Disaster and Emergency Management, is based in the Department of Computer Science, and Ferworn would like to see it developed into a Ryerson PhD. The other certificate, Robotics and Embedded Systems, is a collaboration between three departments—Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. Robotics and Embedded Systems requires six courses: one is now fully online.
“It made perfect sense to put this course online. Students don’t want to sit through a lecture on how to make a robot. They want to learn through building and end up with a robot that does something," said Ferworn. Students who enrol in the course buy a robot kit—and their knowledge is tested via YouTube: they make a video of their progress, and send the link to their instructor. Students include entrepreneurs, engineers, technologists, and teachers from all over the world.
Ferworn believes in the online format, and argues for even greater access, through delivering learning materials through a smartphone app, for example. “We are too fixed on the technology we already have. We should think about distance learning itself; the best ways to deliver it. We can develop or adapt new technologies for these purposes.”