The next time you notice an anthill, don't squash it. It could just be the key to a future search-and-rescue operation. Researchers have been studying fire ants and their ability to speedily dig through all sorts of materials -- from soil to glass beads. No matter what the material, the ants' digging remains the same. They create tunnels with a diameter that matches the length of their bodies; this ideal size allows for two-way ant traffic while keeping tunnel walls within easy grasping distance. These tunnels -- and their creators -- could offer the key to more effective search and rescue robots.
Currently, search and rescue robots are built like miniature tanks. Boxy and inflexible, the robots work best when traveling in a straight line on level terrain. But what if scientists could take their cues from fire ants and figure out a way to make an agile robot that can enter underground chambers or navigate impromptu tunnels caused by falling debris? Thanks to inspiration taken from snakes or caterpillars, researchers almost did.
A snake robot that could wiggle its way through a collapsed structure and a caterpillar robot that could vibrate into disaster-created tunnels worked admirably in laboratories, but not real life. When tested after a building collapse in Cologne, Germany, both robots failed. They were either too large to fit beneath the rubble or couldn't be operated from a safe distance. The robots required complex machinations to move, which translated into more opportunities for parts to break down. Plus, the robots were expensive to build and operate. Researchers have to figure out how to combat the robots' substantial energy drain in potentially remote environments [sources: Fecht].
In 2012, however, rescuers came up with a potentially powerful combination when they devised a way for rescue dogs to deploy snake robots. During training exercises, a search and rescue dog equipped with a snake robot finds a survivor, then barks to alert its handler. This bark activates the robot, which enters spaces too small or dangerous for the dog to fit. The snakebot then relays video and audio back to rescuers [source: Boyle].
Whether it means locating a GPS-equipped distress signal or using a snakebot-toting dog, search and rescue operations have entered a digital age.