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Insect-like search-and-rescue microrobots to be deployed within a decade

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Swarms of tiny devices could zip into disaster zones seeking-out survivors and eliminating casualties among human rescuers

I n the aftermath of the California wildfires, which claimed the lives of civilians and firefighters, experts have developed a swarm of advanced microrobots that could eliminate the ‘search’ in search and rescue.

In a piece by Forbes, Harvard’s Ambulatory Microrobit (HAMR), is an insect-like device that can “fly, swim, walk on water and race on land”. It is reportedly the size and weight of a cockroach (2.8 grams) and can move at an incredible rate - the speed of 25cm per second. Solar powered versions can, currently at least, operate for up to five minutes.

Utilising such devices in natural disasters could save lives but also speed-up the search and rescue process. They would, for instance, enter collapsed buildings where human rescuers are too large to enter or when doing so would prove too great a risk. They could enter wildfire zones and seek-out survivors using cameras and infra-red sensors. And they could navigate waterways (including underwater), cliff faces and other unpassable areas within minutes. The applications are endless.

HAMR is not a pipedream, reports Forbes, but a reality. In time, experts believe they could operate in swarms, “working together for a common purpose”.

T his would achieved through a “centralised agent” which communicates with its neighbours. Once a robot senses a survivor, it could ‘tell’ the rest of the swarm where to look and communicate its findings to human rescuers.

What’s more remarkable is the cost. According to the article, each microrobot costs less than five US dollars – and just a single week – to make. Within five years, experts hope to cut building time to just five hours.

The bots won’t be ready for search and rescue deployments for 10 or even 20 years as experts work to improve their range, durability and solar-powered circuitry. But two decades, in the bigger scheme of things, is a mere blink of an eye.