It is entirely unclear how many people are still trapped under the rubble left behind by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Rescue workers search for survivors virtually around the clock, even though the chances of finding survivors are fading with each passing day.
There are several ways to find people still alive under the rubble. Sometimes, direct communication is possible when rescue workers think they hear a sign of life — trapped people drawing attention to themselves by shouting or knocking, or sending text messages to family or friends.
Those are exceptions, however.
As a rule, rescue workers rely on other methods to search for survivors. On Tuesday, the EU presented the CURSOR (Coordinated use of miniaturized robotic equipment and advanced sensors for search and rescue operations) project: robots and drones to help rescue people from earthquake rubble.
Small robots on wheels, equipped with infrared and thermal cameras, use a tube to check the air for CO2 and proteins typical of humans. That can point to people trapped under the rubble. With the help of loudspeakers and microphones, emergency workers can then try to get in touch with potential survivors. Drones can provide additional help with 3D images of the collapse site.
During aftershocks, the search for survivors "is highly dangerous for rescue teams because everything collapses," says Karsten Berns, a computer scientist and head of the Robotic Systems Chair at the Rhineland-Palatinate Technical University of Kaiserslautern-Landau. That's something autonomous systems are supposed to improve.
What are rescue robots able to do?
Berns is an expert in the field of robot earthquake rescue. In 2016, his team was part of a project similar to CURSOR. The robots used in the ICARUS project were also designed to facilitate relief work, including small tracked vehicles with infrared sensors and large excavator-like robots that can move heavy rubble or parts of buildings. They are operated from a distance of 1 kilometer to make sure no excavator operator is in danger while a camera transmits to the control center what the robot "sees."
Robots that can drive into collapsed houses were equipped with gas sensors — explosions from damaged gas pipes can pose a serious risk.
Both Berns' robots and the newer ones in the CURSOR project are prototypes developed by researchers and tested in individual presentations. None of these machines can help locate buried victims in the Turkish-Syrian earthquake zone. Production for use in real disasters is still a long way off. Many questions remain: Who is going to pay for the production of the expensive machines, who foots the bill for the transport to earthquake zones? No one in research has the funds, Berns told DW, adding that is where industry comes in.
Robot or rescue dog?
One clear advantage of the rescue dogs is that they are not just prototypes but can be used here and now. Rescue dogs are on site searching for survivors under the rubble in Turkey and Syria. Dogs can smell sweat, hormones, blood, excrement or even people's breath. When they have sniffed out someone lying under the rubble, they bark and paw at the spot.
Unlike rescue robots, they need neither electricity nor the internet but only water and food. And the robots are not yet sophisticated enough to beat the nose of a good sniffer dog, says Berns — at this point, the German shepherd is still better. Robots do have some advantages though, he concedes, They can transmit images and can be steered to a precise location.
While working on the ICARUS project, Berns and his team thought about using technology to automate the decision process which buildings to send rescuers to. But specialists with real-life experience soon talked them out of the idea, warning that any such decision was already hard enough for a human expert. "There are people under the rubble who are happy that someone is there and the experts might know that they can't save them," Berns says.
If the danger of collapse is too big, the rescue team might have to decide to leave trapped people behind so as not to endanger the rescuers' lives. You can't leave that decision to a robot.
This article was originally written in German.