First responders frequently encounter situations where an incident scene could be either potentially toxic, like an industrial accident, or physically dangerous, like a collapsed building or crumbling hillside. In these instances, the job still needs to get done, despite any personal risk—because lives could hang in the balance. The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is facilitating important research and development specifically for these situations, providing solutions that will allow responders to send unmanned vehicles in first to assess the environments, help chart the best path forward, and deliver lifesaving supplies and communications to survivors.
“We are driven by the requirements and needs the first responders articulate. This is about developing the tools they need,” said S&T Program Manager Maua Karen Johnson, who is leading an effort to develop a new system that could help first responders save lives without putting their own in jeopardy. Called the Remote and Rapid Recue Capability (3RC), the program is working to incorporate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) into day-to-day rescue operations—something responders themselves indicated was a top priority.
UAV and UGV (commonly called drones by air or by land) are becoming more and more a part of our world. As prices decrease and functionality increases, these tools are remaking our world and how we interact with it. They are also quickly becoming a staple for emergency response.
S&T is working with industry partner Robotic Research to leverage this technology for first responders. They are developing an integrated system of ground and aerial autonomous vehicles that can independently, or working together, provide them with logistical support, search and rescue capabilities, and much more. The system will also allow responders to deliver emergency aid and communicate with civilians in high-risk locations. The system being developed through the 3RC Program is called the Transformable Marsupial Robotic Rescue System (TraMRRS), which makes use of Robotic Research’s Pegasus Transformable Air-Ground Robotic System. The Pegasus can fly and it can move along the ground. It can fly up to a culvert, roll down the inside of the pipe to the other side, and then continue on by flying again. The Pegasus can also link with three or more other Pegasuses using its advanced artificial intelligence to autonomously coordinate a search. While many first responder agencies are experimenting with drones, there is currently very little in the commercial marketplace that can fill as many different roles and address this variety of missions. The 3RC Project will employ a transformable UAV carried by a larger, multiple-terrain UGV host.
David Saitta, Hazardous Material and Safety Officer for the Burnham, Illinois, Fire Department, thinks one of the huge potential benefits of this new system is the capability to carry supplies to a victim. “Having an aerial drone that can not only locate a victim, but then has the ability to bring equipment to the victim at the scene, that would be incredibly useful.” The aerial drone could potentially bring lights, flotation devices, communication equipment so that victims can speak with rescuers, and basic medical supplies, and these things could be brought to the victim even before the rescue team has suited up to get to the scene. Imagine someone injured in an industrial accident, or the crash of a train or truck carrying potentially hazardous materials. This system would be able to find and establish communications with trapped individuals and deliver first aid supplies immediately while command is still assessing what exposure risk rescuers are facing.
“In order for victims to have the best chance for recovery it is vital to get them to a trauma center within the first hour,” said Steve Vandewalle, helicopter rescue medic with the San Diego Fire Department and member of S&T’s first responder Resource Group. “Transport is the most important part of responding, and access is often the most difficult part of providing transport.”
“3RC is a tool that can be deployed to a ‘hot zone’,” Vandewalle continued. “It could be a dangerous situation, like a chemical spill, with multiple casualties—I don’t want to send my team into a situation where they could be poisoned or contaminated. We may not know what the situation is at all, and this system can get in there and start providing information and assistance right away.”
In addition to operating an autonomous drone to seek, find and bring aid and communications to victims, there is also a UGV, which responders can use to provide transport and a mobile base for the aerial drone, with a landing platform and extra batteries, moving it close to the search area. This part of the system carries heavier supplies than a flying drone can accommodate, weight that responders do not have to put on their backs, easing access over rough terrain and reducing exertion and fatigue so that they can stay in the field longer.
The UGV can also be used as a moving stretcher, carrying casualties out of dangerous or compromised terrain. This capability alone will be a huge benefit, as carrying a victim away to safety could take two or three first responders and be very taxing and time consuming. The system can also be supplemented by WarLoc, a hands-free tracking device is that is worn by a first responder and allows the UGV to automatically follow the person wearing it. If the responder goes down a route that the UGV can’t traverse, it will find a different route that it can manage automatically and still follow the rescuer.
As a helicopter rescue medic, Vandewalle understands how effective air rescue is, but also knows its limitations. “We are one fog bank away from not being able to deploy.” Fog or other severe weather conditions at a helicopter’s home base means that it would be unavailable to respond anywhere in the area, even if the weather at the incident scene is just fine. 3RC can be brought to the scene and then deployed.
According to Vandewalle, about 70% of fire departments around the country are volunteer, and these agencies tend to have less funding and fewer resources. This system would most likely be part of regional cooperation agreements, where a smaller, less equipped department calls on a larger agency nearby for assistance in an emergency. These kinds of agreements are common today. Vandewalle’s helicopter unit in San Diego is part of this type of arrangement.
Saitta says that his Burnham Fire Department, which is in the suburbs of Chicago, is also part of a regional mutual assistance agreement. This means that a single system could provide support far beyond the agency that purchases and operates it.
Saitta brought up several real-world incidents he has seen that would have benefitted from having this system in place. One was a severe blizzard in 2013, with several inches of snow. There were many vehicles stuck and abandoned along impassable roadways and the UGV could have assisted us by carrying equipment and extricating any patients to awaiting ambulances. Another was a tornado that hit a mobile home park in 2020. Downed trees and debris made accessibility very difficult, and again, having a carryall for tools and supplies, as well as being able to transport casualties would have been very helpful.
Vandewalle also has experience with casualties in crowded urban events. “San Diego has large, well-attended events in a downtown area called the Gaslamp District. If someone is in distress somewhere in the middle of a crowded area it can be extremely difficult to get emergency vehicles to the scene. A first responder with a UGV following them, a UGV that can also carry the victim out of the crowd to a waiting ambulance, could make a big difference.”
Johnson and her team are currently working with Robotic Research and the responders to design, build, and refine two 3RC prototypes by spring 2023.