Kinect tech will aid in search and rescue of earthquake victims

When a major earthquake strikes a populated area, one of the greatest challenges for rescue workers is trying to save victims of the disaster who are trapped under rubble or in unsafe structures. Thanks to Microsoft’s Kinect technology, however, a new search and rescue tool is on the way.

A team of engineers at the University of Warwick in the UK have developed a robot that bears a strong resemblance to Johnny 5 or Wall-E and uses the Kinect motion sensing camera to “look” for signs of life in earthquake-ravaged areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Kinect tech will aid in search and rescue of earthquake victims

Robotic search devices have been available in the past, but the expense of the laser sensors used in them were too cost-prohibitive for most rescue teams. The Kinect is not only much more affordable, $3200 less than the cost of a laser finder, it is also better at “seeing” areas where people may be trapped.

“What we had before was a LIDAR – a laser range finder – but that then just gives you literally a planar view so you get a flat-line of how far things are away from you,” explains mechanical engineer Peter Crook. “Whereas the Kinect gives us a 3-D view so we can actually see like an image and how far everything is away.”

“It also produces a 3-D map at the same time, so what you will then have back on the computer is a whole map of the interior of the building,” Crook told the BBC. “You could then streamline your rescue process.”

The one hurdle that the Warwick team has not yet dealt with is getting permission from Microsoft to use their Kinect technology in that manner. However, the engineers are much more optimistic about dealing with the company since they have heard about plans to release a Software Development Kit (SDK) for the device this spring.

“It’s definitely good news for us,” says Crook. “Essentially we’re using it for the function it’s designed for but applying it not to computer games but for saving lives.”

Public SDK or not, one would hope that Microsoft would be willing to license their technology for such a cause. In the critical hours following an earthquake like the one in New Zealand, it could literally mean the difference between life and death for victims.