AUSTIN – A petting zoo for robots may not seem as intuitive as one for goats and sheep, but a handful of talented designers and engineers proved that even this strange concept can work. At SXSW 2015, more than a dozen robotics experts showed off their creations, the most interesting of which had either theoretical or proven humanitarian aid functions.
The DAR-1 (at the top of the page) is a robot that resembles a spider, and has excellent facial recognition and eye-tracking technology. RobotCentral, its creator, believes that it could scale rubble in disaster zones and identify those who need aid with its sophisticated camera.
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One of the oddest-looking robots present was the Nikko, which its creator from i can fly videos described as a "flying monkey drone." It resembles a quad-copter with a monkey head and fur to match, but the really interesting thing about it is that it can be controlled via brainwaves using an EEG sensor. It has potential applications for law enforcement and search and rescue operations.
Both the Matternet One from Matternet Inc. and the Xfold Cinema X8/X12 from HaloDrop focused on supply delivery. These huge flying drones can carry payloads such as jugs of water or medicine into remote or dangerous areas. Currently, these tasks usually fall to humans or animals, for whom the job may be too risky.
The Illumiloon from Yale University was one of the simplest but potentially most useful robots on display. Part signaling device and part balloon, the Illumiloon is a color-coded, last-ditch communication effort that emergency victims can program based on their needs: different colors signify different requirements, such as food or medicine.
Unlike their flying brethren, the Bujold and the McCaffrey from Texas A&M Engineering can reach disaster victims by using heavy-duty wheeled treads. They can search for victims in collapsed buildings and report their findings via camera. In fact, the Bujold was the first robot ever used at a disaster site, assisting workers digging through rubble after the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
The MUPPette from Gensler was also unusual. The device is a combination flying drone and 3D printer, which could make it a rather versatile humanitarian aid device. The MUPPette could print shelters, barricades or tools to help survive a hostile environment.
Some of the robots were commercially available; others were proof-of-concept projects. Either way, aiding disaster victims and exploring remote regions of the world should hopefully become easier within the next few years with a little help from a few robotic allies.