After the Typhoon, Rescuing the Survivors…

It is hard to have empathy sitting in New York City, but make no mistake the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan is real.  Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless and survivors are desperate for food, water, shelter, and medical care.  We can all help by donating money to organizations like the JDC to aid in their urgent disaster relief.

When conducting search and rescue missions, humans are debilitated by their own survival instincts before helping others. The rule of thumb states that if it is too dangerous for a person, it is time to call up the robot reserves. However, this principal has been challenged by visual line of site issues and physical obstacles to offer real-time results.

The solution according to a group of Swiss engineers could be found in nature, or more specially in flying insects that are able to crash and bump into objects while flying through a field of obstacles.   These scientists, created, GimBall, a spherical flying robot encased in a flexible cage, which allows it to happily smash into surfaces while navigating disaster sites. Unlike other rescue robots, where colliding with obstacles could easily spell the end of an expedition, GimBall is able to bounce back without losing its bearings or damaging its in-built camera.

The futuristic floating ball is the brainchild of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), and it’s hoped that one day it will be used for everything from searching for survivors to measuring gas leaks in collapsed buildings, like the disaster in the Philippines.

“We were wondering why insects were so capable of going inside any building — yet had limited senses such as eyesight,” explained co-creator Adrien Briod.  “One capability that was completely overlooked was their ability to collide into surfaces. For insects this isn’t a big deal — but it is for robots.”

With a 37 centimeter diameter, the robot is a little larger than a basketball. Featuring a stable inner frame, and a rotating outer frame made of 90 flexible carbon rods, it is able to bounce off surfaces without damaging the machine. While other robots might need heavy sensors to help avoid collisions, GimBall keeps things light, weighing just 370 grams. Two propellers help it fly along at 5 kilometers per hour, with enough battery power to last five minutes. It can either be remote controlled, or fly autonomously, sending back footage to operators.

GimBall is another example of a new wave of civilian-focused “drones” that aim to save lives, versus end them (hopefully in time before the next natural disaster).

 * CNN contributed to this post

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