Page updated: 7 January 2021
Advances in technologies are being used to enable those with disabilities to undertake tasks that would be impossible otherwise.
The rise of computing power has been well canvassed in the media. Perhaps less well known are the powerful advances in machines that give humans near-super human abilities. These abilities could come in very handy in the SAR context indeed.
Technologies like exoskeletons are already enabling humans to perform feats of strength and endurance[i] – things that could be very useful in a SAR context. For example, in Italy they have created a bionic arm, commanded by the human brain or a limb extension, which allows rescuers to lift rubble off people after disasters.[ii]
[i] “Exoskeleton Gives You Super Strength.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Oct. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAyI1YrWThQ.
[ii] "Robot designers create exoskeleton for use in search and rescue ...." 30 Jul. 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/robot-designers-create-exoskeleton-for-use-in-search-and-rescue-missions/news-story/e8915807a45bc8b5661e07ec94e07baf. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
Augmented and virtual reality could both create demand for SAR in future and provide new and powerful ways to find people.
The development of new apps like Pokémon Go, which use an augmented overlay on reality, could see more people using the outdoors in non-traditional ways, especially young people. This could create some risks, as people get distracted by the technology while in risky situations. In the USA, for example, it was reported that Pokémon Go caused more than 110,000 road accidents in just 10 days[i].
However, the ubiquitous nature of such new technologies could also make it easier to locate people in distress as such devices increasingly signal a person’s location. For example, increasingly systems are being made available, with GPS included, to track the location of both children[ii] and older people[iii] to help prevent wandering.
Furthermore, new augmented reality platforms (e.g. Google glass) could assist in SAR efforts by providing rescuers an overlay of information or data relevant to the search effort (e.g. clarifying which areas have already been searched to avoid duplication of effort).
One highly anticipated area of development is the growth of ‘personal clouds’, which will assemble personal health, lifestyle and consumer information, in ways that individuals will themselves control. They will support people to make sense of their schedules and fit their lifestyle and social activity into their days and link with the products and services they value (Cameron 2013, Summers 2013).[iv]
These clouds will also provide a useful potential mechanism for those searching for missing persons by helping identify where they were located last. Cell phones are already used like this, but when wearables also transmit to personal clouds, this could present a whole different layer of information to assist searchers.
Looking ahead, we are looking at humans being ever more tethered to sensors of one sort or another. Not just phones, but a wide range of wearable devices, machines and clothing will all increasingly contain sensors. Known as the ‘Internet of Things’, technology giant Gartner estimates that up to 26 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020.[i] These sensors combined with AI will make objects more intelligent. People and things will be ever more traceable than before – something that may prove very useful in a SAR context, particularly if people have not necessarily prepared adequately for outdoor activities themselves.
[i] (2016, September 16). Don't Pokemon Go and drive! More than 110000 road ... - Daily Mail. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3793050/Don-t-Pokemon-drive-110-000-road-accidents-caused-game-just-10-days.html
[ii] (2017, May 18). The best kids trackers: Using wearables for child safety - Wareable. Retrieved October 3, 2017, from https://www.wareable.com/internet-of-things/the-best-kids-trackers
[iii] “Alzheimers New Zealand For Dementia Support Call 0800 004 001.” Alzheimers New Zealand, www.alzheimers.org.nz/regions/eastern-bay-of-plenty/wandatrak-tracking-system.
[iv] “Future of Sport in New Zealand.” Http://Www.sportnz.org.nz/, 29 July 2017, www.sportnz.org.nz/managing-sport/search-for-a-resource/research/future-of-sport-in-new-zealand.
[v] “Gartner Says the Internet of Things Installed Base Will Grow to 26 Billion Units By 2020.”Gartner, Gartner, 12 Dec. 2017, www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2636073.
If we can expect improvements in technology to make humans both stronger and more able to process large volumes of information to find people better, we can expect the improvements to come even faster when technologies are combined.
In particular, when improvements in software and hardware come together, technology can become significantly more helpful in a much shorter timeframe.
To illustrate, consider the difference between say a vaccum cleaner that simply has more suction versus one that does not require a human to push it around a room to do its job.
An example of such major enhancements include the DJI drone[i], which combines with a 3D printed exoskeleton to become a dedicated SAR tool. These tools are getting improved battery life and more opportunities for cameras allowing them to perform much better. They are also being made better at dealing with obstacles.
In the future, such systems will become exponentially better as they benefit from the general research into AI. Already, we are seeing the power of AI in other fields – for example, IBM’s Watson is already better than doctors at diagnosing and enabling treatment of certain disease like skin cancer and Leukaemia.
Imagine intelligent machines that could pinpoint a person floating in the Pacific ocean from vast swathes of very similar satellite data, the rapidly deploy a rescue drone with a human-sized carry pod to pick them up and fly them home.
While there are technical challenges to realising such a vision, they are simply that - technical, and a matter of time before they are resolved.