An earthquake fixed attention and sympathy this week on New Zealand, where more than 100 died and more than 200 still are missing. Authorities probing the rubble surrounding Christchurch find some buildings too unsafe to enter. A Kinect-enabled robot, developed by British researchers, could help in such situations.
Engineers at the U.K.'s University of Warwich have built a robot that uses Kinect's camera to scan disaster areas for signs of survival, at a cost far more cheap than larger and more complex search-and-rescue robots. Kinect helps the robot model its surroundings and, from the visual information presented, identify places where survivors may be located.
Using Kinect saves roughly £2000 in construction costs, the research team estimates. Search-and-rescue robots currently in use employed laser-based radar, which was expensive and also gave only a "planar view, so you get a flat-line of how far things are away from you," said one researcher. The Kinect-enabled robot will work in three dimensions.
"It's not really designed to bring people who are stuck there out, but it would mean that the rescue services know where they are, and would be able to get to them much more effectively than maybe looking through a whole building which may be empty," said Peter Crook, a mechanical engineer on the project.
"It also produces a 3-D map at the same time, so what you will then have back on the computer is a whole map of the interior of the building. You could then streamline your rescue process," Crook said.
The robot won first place at a prestigious European robotics competition. While that's attracted publicity and funding, it remains parked in the U.K. for now, for lack of sponsorship to send it to assist in New Zealand.