Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2015.

Inspection of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant


The PackBot.  Photo Credit: iRobot

After the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan, emergency responders deployed a ground robot called a PackBot to check on conditions at the plant, allowing workers to stay a safe distance from the deadly radiation. The U.S. military and law enforcement have used PackBots in a variety of ways, from disposing bombs to conducting high-risk building searches and detecting hazardous materials. Fit with sensors and cameras that can be customized depending on its intended use, the robot is controlled by a computer tablet or a handheld video-game controller. The PackBot, manufactured by iRobot, comes in various sizes and can run for four hours between charges of its two lithium ion batteries. It can reach speeds of nearly six miles per hour, climb stairs, overcome obstacles and debris, and is submersible in three feet of water, according to irobot website.

Image capture following Nepal earthquake

The Aeryon SkyRanger

The Aeryon SkyRanger.  Photo Credit: Aeryon Labs Inc.

The Aeryon SkyRanger is a 5.3-pound battery-powered quadcopter drone deployed recently in the aftermath of the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. The humanitarian organization Global Medic used the SkyRanger, along with two other Aeryon models called Scouts, to collect thousands of high-resolution images to help crews on the ground determine the extent of damage in neighborhoods, identify roads that were blocked, plan the best routes for delivering aid, and determine where aid was most needed. Onboard thermal imaging cameras also helped crews locate survivors trapped in the rubble, according to Dave Kroetsch, Aeryon CEO.

Inspection of fire ground to assist firefighters

Phantom 2 drone.

Phantom 2 Drone.  Photo Credit: DJI.

In 2014 the Branson (Connecticut) Fire Department used a Phantom 2 drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI and equipped with a high-definition video camera, to confirm that a fire in a local granite quarry was a safe distance from explosives before firefighters were allowed to move in to put out the fire. The event was one of the earliest known deployments of a drone by a local fire department in the U.S. While not built for or marketed to first responders, the Phantom 2 is among the most popular drones made for the hobbyist consumer market. The small remote-controlled UAV weighs 2.2 pounds, is equipped with a camera stabilizer, and can fly for 25 minutes between battery charges.

Wildfire observation

The Tempest

The Tempest drone.  Photo Credit: UASUSA

Recently, the company UASUSA has worked with Colorado fire officials by utilizing its Tempest drone to locate remote wildfires and hot spots. The drone’s sensors are able to monitor wind direction and speed to assist firefighters on the ground, according to Cory Remington, UASUSA’s director of technology. The Tempest, originally developed for the University of Colorado’s tornado research program, has a 10-foot wingspan, can be outfitted with up to 15 pounds of sensors and cameras, and has flown in nearly 70 tornado research missions, according to The drone weighs 10 pounds and is launched by throwing it like a javelin. Once airborne, it is controlled using a tablet computer. The drone can hit speeds of up to 100 miles per hour and can fly for up to four hours on a single battery charge.

Underwater search, rescue, + recovery


The VideoRay.  Photo Credit: VideoRay

For a decade, the St. Louis County search and rescue squad in Duluth, Minnesota, has deployed an underwater, unmanned robot called the VideoRay for underwater search, rescue, and recovery missions. So far, the robot has helped the unit retrieve nearly 30 drowning victims. The VideoRay's rugged base system, which is recommended for first response, weighs about 13.5 pounds, can dive up to 1,000 feet, and can propel itself at 4.2 knots using multiple thrusters. The robot requires surface power of 100–240 VAC, an amount typically provided by outlets in homes and businesses. The submersible can be fitted with video cameras, imaging sonar, a robotic manipulator arm, and a smart tether that can aid in navigation and tracking. It is controlled using a small computer or tablet and an industrial USB hand controller.