The analyses of the emergency operations performed after large natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, or human-made ones, have shown several aspects that could be improved in order to increase the effectiveness of the operation, and most important to save human lives. Among the issues that are considered especially significant are:
- The ability to re-construct the disaster scenario and obtain up to date and reliable information to optimise the use of resources and focus the action, where most needed;
- The possibility to employ robotic systems to support the rescuers in those situation where the human intervention is dangerous or impossible due to the environmental conditions.
The present proposal has its roots in the former project "Planning and real-time monitoring of rescue operations in large scale disasters" (see [NaBi02] and http://www.dis.uniroma1.it/~rescue), where the former issue has been dealt with in the reference framework of the Umbria and Marche earthquake (1997), has the goal of implementing a simulation and robotic system, whose purpose is to provide tools for the rescuers in the emergency operations in post-disaster scenarios.
In order to achieve such a goal several issues must be tackled, that are very challenging from the scientific standpoint of the research in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. To properly characterize the various aspects of the problem we identify two intermediate goals that allow to test and evaluate the methodologies and techniques that are proposed within the project.
The first intermediate goal is to extend the simulation tools already implemented, in order to obtain a more accurate model of the rescue operations in a system where both human and robotic agents act. In this context we intend to address the following three issues.
1) Extend the prototype tool for monitoring and decision support of real time operations, that allows for the simulation of a disaster scenario and for the evaluation of the effectiveness of rescue operations both as a forecast analysis and during the operations. The implemented prototype is based on the RoboCup Rescue Simulator which combines the following three main components: modelling of the events activated (directly or indirectly) by the main disaster, acquisition and integration of the data coming from several sources, modelling/monitoring/planning of the resources available for the operation in the form of team of multi agents. The proposed extension will be concerned with the integration within the simulation environment of robotic agents whose main goal is to detect victims within collapsed buildings.
2) Extend the 3D visualizer in order to provide a real time rendering of the scenario and of the actions of (human and robotic) agents to be used by the rescue operators.
3) Extend the simulation tools of the robotic systems, already developed by the proponents so to integrate the features that are specific to the rescue scenario and model the new functionalities of the rescue (as described below).
The accomplishment of the above tasks will allow for testing and evaluating several technical solutions implemented on the robotic prototypes and provide a 3D real time evaluation of the rescue operations, thus enabling for the inspection of the system behaviour to the rescue operator.
The second intermediate goal has to do with the experimentation of robotic platforms in exploration and victim detection tasks in post-disaster scenario that are risk-prone for the human operator. The achievement of this goal requires the use of suitable environment for the test of the robot capabilities. In this respect we propose the realization of test arenas for experimentation of robotic solutions in emergency scenarios, designed and proposed as standard reference for the field by the National Institute of Standards (http://isd.cme.nist.gov/), and currently used in several research institutions and adopted as reference in the international rescue robot competitions (AAAI and RoboCup). The implementation of the test arenas is essential since it allows the technical evaluation of the specific capabilities of the robots (such as motion, exploration, localization, and object detection) in a scenario with features that are very similar to the real operation and easily comparable with analogous solutions proposed by the researchers in the field. The arena will be located at the Istituto Superiore Antincendi, (ISA, Roma), which provides both the expertise to implement realistic scenarios and is interested in the results of the research. It is important to stress that the structures implemented will be available for experimentation to groups of researcher from other institutions and that the Istituto Superiore Antincendi has the facilities to host researchers for experimental sessions. The implementation of the experimental set up will foster the cooperation with other researchers in the field, that will have the opportunity to compare their solution in the experimental set up.
With respect to the design of the robotic system is worth mentioning that the features of the robotic platforms must be specialized to the operation context both with respect to the motion capabilities and with respect to the possibility of acquiring information through the sensors. Moreover, low cost unit must be used, given the high risk of damage due to the collapses and other dangerous situations. Two issues that are considered especially significant for the proposed research concern the possibility of cooperation among robotic systems and the autonomy of the robots both in the interpretation of the sensorial inputs and in mapping the environment. At the end of the project it will be possible to evaluate the implemented prototypes in terms of ability of mapping the environment and detecting the victims, and to define the minimal requirements for the implementation of the components for information acquisition and related techniques, as well as for the possibility of employing a team of cooperating robots.
Finally, the integration of the above sketched activities will lead to the definition of the intervention strategies depending on the conditions of the scenario, with he help of the simulation and decision support tool, and to experiment the effectiveness of the rescue robots interacting with the rescue personnel in the test scenarios. The use and development of the proposed approach and technical solution will also foster the development of international standards and related tools allowing the sharing of resources and creating significant synergies among the countries that are particularly interested in earthquake emergencies. In conclusion, we remark that the integration of simulation and robotic components in a rescue scenario is one of the foremost goals of several research projects in the field.