URI engineer awarded grant to develop robots to aid in emergency evacuation

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KINGSTON, R.I. – October 13, 2015 – A University of Rhode Island engineering professor has been awarded a three-year, $282,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a system of intelligent robots that can help direct or lead people to appropriate exits if an emergency evacuation is necessary.


Haibo He, professor of electrical engineering, and a colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology were awarded the grant through President Barack Obama’s National Robotics Initiative, which called for the development of “co-robots” that can work alongside people to extend or augment human capabilities.


“Our goal is to help evacuate people from malls, student dormitories, auditoriums or other indoor environments where an emergency has happened, like a fire,” He said. “We want to design an intelligent robot with control algorithms to guide people under those situations.”


According to He, stampeding crowds can be one of the most harmful collective human behaviors, often causing greater harm than the event that triggered the stampede.


He said that in a panic situation like an emergency evacuation, people behave considerably different then when in normal circumstances. So his first step will be to study human behavior in emergencies to better understand how people will react to various kinds of panic situations. He will engage URI Psychology Professor Charles Collyer in this aspect of the project.


The next step will be to design mathematical algorithms to control how the robot will interact with humans. “Our ultimate goal is to control the robot, and in this way indirectly control human behavior, because we can’t control human behavior directly when they are in panic mode,” said He.


The researchers will also conduct surveys and use camera systems at malls and other facilities to observe how people transit from place to place under normal situations, since those routes are the most likely paths they would take to exit in an emergency as well.


The URI professor envisions a series of robots stationed at various places around a facility that can move around in a coordinated fashion and display lights or signals or make announcements during an emergency to safely lead people to the exits. The robots would be able to sense the flow of people and their behaviors so the robots can optimally redirect people to alternate exits if the primary or closest exit becomes blocked.


“There will have to be a cooperative control approach to coordinate multiple robots,” He explained. “Multiple robots would have to be dispatched in complex environments, since each robot can only guide a certain number of people, and they will need to communicate with each other to coordinate their efforts.”


The algorithm the researchers develop to control the robots must also be adaptable so it can be reconfigured for different kinds of facilities and potential emergencies. It may also be used under normal conditions to make exiting large venues like sports arenas and concert halls more efficient.


As part of the grant, He will engage students in the robotics program at the Community College of Rhode Island, as well as local high school students, in learning how robots could be used in evacuation scenarios and other applications. Some students may also participate in a summer-long robotics research program in He’s URI lab.


Pictured above

Haibo He. URI photo by Michael Salerno Photography.