When designing futuristic humanoid robots, what has sci-fi taught us the number one thing it absolutely needs is? That’s right – a jetpack. Luckily, a team of scientists from Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia is on the case, attempting to fix a backpack propulsion system to an existing child-sized robot called iCub. Why? The team believes that robots taking to the air will give search and rescue teams a unique tool to find wounded people, while still preserving their ability to manipulate objects and go into areas humans cannot.
Perhaps inspired by Iron Man, the jetpack-joyriding iCub will be equipped with propulsion systems in the palms of its robotic hands, allowing it to change direction and ascend easily. Once at the target, iCub could open doors, shut off valves, and survey indoor and outdoor disaster sites for survivors.
“The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed around 230.000 humans on 14 countries, caused 140.000 wounded, and consequently 1.74 million people had to be taken care and displaced,” writes their website.
“Unfortunately, robotics is still lagging behind to offer affordable solutions in these disaster scenarios. Humanoid robots may be employed for indoor inspection and manipulation tasks, but the robots would struggle with outdoor inspection.”
This is the struggle robotics teams face when repurposing humanoid robots for Search and Rescue. Robots capable of manipulation – opening doors and moving objects – are often relatively immobile, while those used for reconnaissance are limited to that functionality. They believe adding aerial locomotion to a humanoid robot is the way to remedy this.
Their research so far has been developing algorithms for the robot to control height and position while in the air, while they developed an accurate test bench to model the powerful turbines that will be strapped to the arms. As the first Iron Man movie taught us, getting accurate control while in flight is a precise science, not something that can fit into a 2-minute movie montage.
If their video demonstrating the jet engines are anything to go by, this thing will go seriously fast. At the height of a "five-year-old child" (104 cm, or 40.9 inches) and a weight of 33 kilograms (72.6 pounds) without the engines, two propulsion systems strapped onto the small robot would allow it to reach survivors in a matter of minutes when deployed at a disaster site. Despite the research being early days, 40 iCubs are already being worked on around the globe.
So, it might not be long before the first thing survivors of earthquakes and similar disasters see is a jetpacking robot, descending on their location and calling rescue to their position. We really are in the future.