Security services robots

A group of robots used to carry out security work is widely used in the civil sphere. Many of them are remotely controlled or semi-autonomous, so they are considered real robots, while others are robotic devices with a limited level of autonomy. Developers mainly classify rescue and security robots according to the types of disasters.

Types of operations carried out by the robots

Surveillance robots are used to assist human guards covering a large territory or keep vigil in a potentially dangerous area. Typically, they are based on a mobile robot platform, on which several specialized instruments can be mounted, so that they can be adapted to particular tasks in many applications. These mobile robots carry a variety of sensors, depending on their specific application or mission environment: such as camera equipment (including infrared) for teleoperation and telepresence, or microphones to help detect human presence, as well as chemical or smoke sensors. Usually, the robots bear a high resemblance or are in many cases, technical derivatives of unmanned ground, aerial, or underwater vehicles from defense applications.

OC Robotics now GE Aviation (UK) offers a different snake-arm robot design capable of reaching into awkward spaces. Where a rigid-link robot is restricted by the "elbows" in its arms, a snake-arm can follow its nose to get through small gaps and around narrowly spaced obstacles. Objects to be inspected through small holes or gaps might be as diverse as cars, luggage, or containers.

The Fukushima accident as a large-scale surveillance/security robot operating scenario.

The Great East Japan Earthquake was a dramatic event that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. The tsunami followed brought down extensive and severe damage to Tohoku (Northeast). Extensive efforts were made to secure the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

In desperate efforts, robots were introduced to the area, in particular, to inspect the nuclear site, collect data, and deploy sensors and other gears. Several accounts reflect the use and operation of robots (e.g., by QinetiQ, iRobot, and others). It was stated that the Japanese government had spent USD 300 million developing six prototype robots to assist in nuclear accidents, but the nuclear plant operators decided not to buy them. These robots were developed in the wake of a 1999 accident at another nuclear plant in Japan.” Robots can be used inside the disaster area for long-term clean-up operations. An impression of the rescue activities and the used robots are accessible on various websites in these efforts (texts and pictures).

Of particular interest may be the overview of robots used at the disaster site and the ongoing clean-up and dismantling process from 2014.

In any case, the disaster has fueled efforts to create reliable, high-performance robots through government programs or private initiatives. These robots typically show one or two armed configurations on a tracked mobile base. Examples are:

  • The PackBot of Flir is used for on-site inspection and data acquisition.
  • The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) MEISTer (Maintenance Equipment Integrated System of Telecontrol robot).
  • Honda and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) jointly developed a high-access survey robot to collect data on the first floor of the damaged reactor. Like this, design is the Astaco-SoRa robot (Hitachi) for the heavy-duty dismantling of contaminated structures.
  • The “Arounder” of Hitachi delivers a high-pressure water jet for decontaminating walls, infrastructure, or equipment by removing paint, outer layers, or concrete. The robot is designed to suck back the water it uses.
  • A robot for negotiating challenging terrains (stairs, obstructions, etc.) is the Quadruped by Toshiba. The four-legged walking machine is equipped with a smaller wheeled robot; that can be deployed to navigate hard-to-reach areas.

In addition, the disaster had contributed to motivating the DARPA robotics Challenge for initiating groundbreaking research and development so that future robotics can perform the most hazardous activities in future disaster response operations. The challenge aims at demonstrating the following capabilities:

  • Compatibility with environments engineered for humans (even if they are degraded)
  • Ability to use a diverse assortment of tools engineered for humans (from screwdrivers to vehicles)
  • Ability to be supervised by humans who have had little or no robotics training.

Similarly motivated, the EU-funded euRathlon initiative aimed at providing real-world robotics challenges that would test the intelligence and autonomy of outdoor/off-road robots in demanding mock disaster-response scenarios. Missions required autonomous flying, land, and underwater robots operating together to survey the disaster, collect environmental data, and identify critical hazards. Competitions for land robots in 2013 were followed by competitions for underwater robots in 2014; the final contest in 2015 required a team of the land, sea, and air robots: to work together to survey the area, collect environmental data and identify critical hazards.

Level of distribution

Many suppliers provide platforms into various adjacent areas from logistics, via inspection, to unmanned ground vehicles for defense.  Therefore, a clear statistical correspondence of supplied robots to the specific rescue and application area is often difficult to achieve.

Cost-benefit considerations and marketing challenges

Autonomous operation frees guards from regular patrol. They can stay at a central office and follow the robots via video transmission. Where several robots operate in this way, much broader areas can be covered with fewer personnel. Pricing may follow different ways, such as on an hourly basis. As an example, Knightscope advertises a rental price of USD 4 to 9/hour.

In some areas, such as chemical plants, nuclear storage facilities, offshore oil rigs, etc., a visit to various parts of the plant might be associated with considerable risk. Here, it is advantageous to deploy robot systems.  Often, the cost is of secondary importance, which has generated relatively early adoption of the technology.  Recent disasters certainly emphasize the cause for increased R&D and availability of these platforms.

Where appropriate sensor equipment is used, the robots can detect more than humans. In dark rooms, their infrared sensors can reliably trace a human being by its body warmth (at room temperature at a distance of 20-50 meters), and microwave sensors detect even the smallest movements up to 20 meters. Flame, heat, and smoke sensors assure fire prevention. Additional gas sensors, measuring the concentration of carbon monoxide, acetone vapor, or methane can be added to monitor the surrounding air and to prevent accidents.

The different sensors are additional equipment, and the price of a security robot depends on the number and kind of sensors mounted. The cheapest and thus simplest versions do not have a quality advantage over people, and a human guard remains necessary to act in case of an emergency.

More refined versions with good perception capabilities can work under inconvenient or even extreme conditions, such as in power plants or places where gas might escape. Their value thus lies mainly in safety improvement.