Can You Spot a Heroic Robot?

March 19, 2015
A human hand connects with a robotic one.

Zane Thimmesch-Gill was filming a documentary about Inuit health issues when his career took a turn.

"I began wishing that I could reach around the camera and help to fix the problems I was witnessing, rather than just making a story about them," he says.

This desire eventually led him to Guatemala, where he witnessed the devastating impact of mudslides.

"Whole towns were being buried... People rushing to pull their friends out of the mud were often buried alive in secondary slides."

Thimmesch-Gill returned to the states with renewed inspiration and began a Ph.D. program in Human Factors and Ergonomics, exploring the human ability to perceive and understand robots. During his first semester, he recognized the potential for disaster robotics.

"Imagine that a tornado has just ripped your roof off and you're buried in the rubble. How are you going to feel if a robot shows up? How would you know that it's there to help?" he says.

He'll also investigate whether humans respond to robots in virtual reality the same way they do in the real world.

His research could ultimately get new technologies into disaster sites to help people more quickly.

"Machines are expensive, but we can always build more. The question now is to determine how to design them in ways that support human needs," says Thimmesch-Gill.