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RFID-Based Robots Come to the Rescue

German researchers have developed a system enabling robots and humans to use passive RFID tags to map out a disaster area and send information to a command center.
By Rhea Wessel
Apr 22, 2008As teams of rescue workers moved throughout New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck that area in August 2005, they frequently wrote codes on buildings to inform groups arriving behind them of important information, or to help those disoriented by the rubble realize they had already been to a particular site. For instance, the codes revealed whether a building was dangerous, or safe or contained rubble.

Researchers in Germany's Black Forest region have developed an RFID extension of this coding system. Their RFID-supported urban search-and-rescue concept features robots and humans working together in disaster zones to map an affected area and transmit information to a command center.

To map out an area, the group used a robot with an RFID reader antenna mounted parallel to the ground to read embedded tags.

"It works like ants do," says Alexander Kleiner, a researcher at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in Breisgau, who wrote a thesis about RFID-based mapping for search and rescue with robots and humans. "Ants leave a trace that the others can smell to say that they have already scouted a certain area." The goal of the project, which is funded by the university and the German Research Foundation (DFG), is to create a system for efficiently mapping disaster areas using people and robots, thus speeding the rescue process and saving lives.

Alex Kleiner
For instance, rescue workers and robots can jointly apply RFID tags to buildings that have already been checked following a disaster, and write key information to the tags so other teams need only read them with PDAs to discern a particular building's status, or to obtain a recommendation of where to proceed next. What's more, as various teams and robots approach via differing paths and read the tags, data can be associated to calculate the tags' location, and to generate a consistent map for use by the central command post. This is particularly useful, for example, if nearby building structures made of reinforced concrete obstruct GPS satellite signals from being read.

Last year, Kleiner and his colleagues tested the system with robots and humans on the university campus using passive RFID tags. And in early 2008, the researchers conducted a test with robots only, using active tags.

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