Rescue robots helping Austin firefighters save lives


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Fire Department is exploring the possibility of using robots for emergency-response situations. Members of AFD’s Robotic Emergency Deployment (RED) team have spent weeks training to master the controls of rescue robots.

The RED Team spent Friday at the Govalle Water Plant working on improving each controller’s hand-eye coordination. The exercise was simple.

“We’ve got different mannequins hidden downstairs in different areas. Our controllers are upstairs. They don’t know where the mannequins are hidden,” said Donelson.

AFD chose the Govalle Water Plant for testing because the sturdy concrete and steel surrounding the tunnel systems provide an area that’s dimly-lit with low, communication signals– a typical situation at emergency scenes.

RED Team members practiced maneuvering the robots to find the mannequins. Each mannequin had a PVC pipe laid across it, and controller’s had to use the robots’ arms to carry those pipes across the room and place them in buckets.

From a distance, it looks like the firefighters are playing a game. But in a completely different area, looking only through the robot’s cameras and control screen, Lieutenant Greg Pope says it’s harder than you’d think.

“When you’re down there and you’re watching the robot, you’re like just drop it, just drop it,” said Pope. “But it does take a lot of practice. it’s muscle memory.”

And just like any video game– practice makes perfect.

“We don’t want to get on an emergency scene and be stumbling around trying to figure out how to manipulate these things because minutes matter, seconds matter,” said Pope.

AFD Lieutenant Lyzz Donelson said using these rescue robots in real-life situations could mean life or death. “Using these robots could not only take firefighters out of harms’ way, but also gain access to patients faster and more efficiently.”

“That might be as simple as bringing communication to that patient, or to monitor the air around that patient; find out if that patient is a viable patient– someone we should send a firefighter down to rescue,” said Donelson.

AFD is one of the first fire departments in the country to look at the possibility of working side-by-side with robots to help save more lives. They are also looking at combining rescue robot technology with aerial technology in the future.

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