CRASAR was contacted shortly after the Chiliean mine collapse that left 33 miners unaccounted for. The situation was quite similar to the Crandall Canyon Utah mine disaster in 2007 that we assisted the Mine Safety and Health Administration on– however the major difference was that the inner diameter of the borehole was much smaller- on the order of 3.5 inches, whereas at Crandall Canyon we had closer to 9 inches. 9 inches is currently the smallest we can get robots that are waterproof and able to function when they land in the pile of mud from the drilling,such as the one built by Inuktun and operated by Pipe Eye International. As we worked to see if we could do better, the miners were miraculously found alive- so the search and rescue robot wasn’t needed.
But now the question is how to keep the trapped miners comfortable and unstressed as they wait for extraction. The has been a topic of research that we are conducting with Prof. Cliff Nass at Stanford University, a world leader in how people communicate through media (such as computers or robots), since 2007. We call the project “Survivor Buddy” – building a robot multi-media “head” that wasn’t creepy. We were originally funded by Microsoft (thanks!) and since 2009 by the National Science Foundation (thanks, too!). The original version of Survivor Buddy was cited by Popular Science as a “Best of 2009” and we have just completed a much lighter, more agile version seen in these YouTube clips here and here.
We’ve requested permission to come to Chile and observe, now that things have settled down (they didn’t need MORE people on-site right after they found the miners). This is quite the opportunity to learn how trapped victims react… and perhaps some of the lessons Cliff and I and our great grad students (especially the newly graduated Dr. Victoria Groom) have learned can be of some help.