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The Proteus System —Robots to the Rescue
March 29, 2012   
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Piotr Szynkarczyk, manager of the Proteus project, and project coordinator Paweł Wojtkiewicz talk to Karolina Olszewska.

What is the Proteus system?

Piotr Szynkarczyk: This is a zl. 68 million project coordinated by the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements in Warsaw (PIAP). We follow an unofficial policy of using names from mythology. The first was Talos, a 20-million-euro project. Proteus had the gift of predicting the future and was also able to change his form. Proteus was a god of the sea and he had power over the elements—while we are battling with natural disasters.

The system is designed for counter-terrorism and crisis management operations. The modern solutions we employ are designed to protect us from the consequences of natural disasters such as floods and fires. They also offer protection from chemical and biological attacks. It is important that this protection is adapted to the needs of Polish emergency services: firefighters, the police, border guards, and crisis management centers.

What does this protection involve?

Paweł Wojtkiewicz: The Proteus computer system makes it possible to determine the direction in which chemical contamination or fires spread. This makes it possible to monitor the area at risk, without risking human lives in the process. Emergency services will be supported by multifunction robots and a system connecting them into a single whole.

Let's start with the mobile robots. What are these?
PW :The system comprises three mobile robots. The Small Mobile Robot (SMR) is intended for use in difficult and inaccessible terrain. It will be able to inspect sites using video and infrared cameras. An innovative power system will enable the robot to quickly and easily reach places where human beings find it difficult to move around, for example in wetlands. The Mobile Intervention Robot (MIR), in turn, is the equivalent of robots supporting the work of special forces. It is equipped with a set of sensors to detect different kinds of threats, in addition to a multifunctional arm, four video cameras and a thermal imaging camera. It will be deployed to the scene to determine the level of risk. This remote-controlled robot with a weight of 70 kg is designed for reconnaissance and intervention operations indoors. The way it is designed will enable it to navigate through difficult terrain and climb stairs.

The Mobile Enhanced Functionality Robot (MEFR) is the biggest of the these robots. This remote-controlled, very durable robot is intended for operations in difficult terrain, such as railway embankments and forests, as well as indoors in large spaces, such as factory halls. It will be possible to equip this robot with a variety of specialized sensors used in the Proteus system, including chemical sensors and those for detecting explosives. The robot will be able to lift and carry objects weighing up to 30 kg.

And all this will connected up and supplemented with additional equipment...

PW: Absolutely. The core of the Proteus system will be a Mobile Command Center—a vehicle fitted with communications system and other equipment enabling constant monitoring of the situation in terms of what is happening with individual components. Another part of the system is an unmanned aircraft—an airplane responsible for collecting data for the Mobile Command Center. The Mobile Robot Operator Center (MROC), installed on a truck chassis, will transport all the robots to the scene. All the components of the system will be equipped with an integrated communications system, which will enable them to interact on the scene, even if they are deployed by different services, for example the fire service and the police. Thanks to the possibility of putting together different components of the system for a specific operation, it will always be possible to adapt the system to the nature of the threat and the scope and type of operations carried out.

Who is working on all this?

PW: Work on the Proteus program is being conducted by a consortium of research centers and institutions led by the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements (PIAP) in Warsaw, which is the originator and coordinator of the whole project. The other members of the consortium are the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Fire Security Research Center, the Institute of Electronic Materials Technology (ITME), the Poznań University of Technology, the Warsaw University of Technology, and the Military University of Technology in Warsaw. More than 100 people representing 10 institutions, including four institutes of the Warsaw University of Technology, are working on the project.

How is the research work financed?

PS: The program is co-financed by the European Union’s Regional Development Fund under the Innovative Economy Operational Program for 2007-2013. Work on the Proteus program began in 2009 and is scheduled to be completed in 2013, which means it is coming to an end. For now, we are integrating individual components into a single system, arranging all the pieces of this puzzle, and will finally test it on an exercise site.

How are intellectual property rights divided in the project? Who will be applying for patents and granting licenses?

PS: The consortium is devised in such a way that each participant is responsible for a separate portion of the project. This also means that the share in future profits will be proportional to the amount of work put in. Each consortium partner, though dependent on others, can develop products for which they are responsible on their own. For example, the PIAP has the robots, and the Warsaw University of Technology provides communications for the system. For five years after the project is completed, a demonstration model for the technology will be available.

Does the Proteus system stand a chance of being successful on the market?

PW: Yes, because Proteus is a very innovative project, based on the most innovative solutions. But let me emphasize that this is a research and development project. Ultimately, not a finished product destined for a store shelf and sale, but a demonstration model of the system, will be created. After the research is completed and before the product is ready for sale, another complicated and time-consuming stage will be needed, involving obtaining the necessary certificates, conducting tests and making corrections. Both the individual components and the entire system must be effective, reliable and flexible enough to be able to replace humans in operations involving the most dangerous emergency situations: fires, road accidents, accidents on construction sites or terrorist threats. Proteus is one of those things that you should have even if it would be better if you didn’t have to use it.

How will the system deal with an emergency if one does occur?

PW: The system will make it easier to properly assess the situation and launch the most appropriate kind of rescue operation. The system is designed to increase the safety of the individuals directly involved, including the rescuers themselves. In an emergency, the robot will detect the nature of the threat and perform particularly dangerous activities such as picking up an explosive that cannot be disarmed on site. The robots will also monitor the contaminated area, which will make it possible to minimize the risk to humans. The mobile robots, the small, medium-sized and large ones, can enter areas inaccessible or dangerous to humans. If there is a suspicious-looking suitcase somewhere under a bench at an airport and there is a bomb alert, then instead of sending a human being there, we can send in a robot. The robots can be equipped with special sensors to detect chemical contamination, radiation hazards or explosives. These sensors can be mounted on each of the three Proteus robots in any configuration.

Let’s return to the commercial aspect of the project. How much time do the researchers need to begin making money on Proteus?

PW: The stage of putting the system to commercial use will last from two to four years. However, a lot of money is needed for that, so such a project would have to be financed from other sources. We are developing a demonstration model to show the possibilities of using all the innovative solutions that we have in the project. Emergency services will receive a fully operational system, the robots in their final form, with the functionalities that we have been aiming for, and operating in a controlled environment. At the end of the project, in May 2013, we will take three robots—an unmanned aircraft and two vehicles, with sensors and with personal monitoring equipment—to an exercise site somewhere, and will probably take part in some firefighting exercises or arrange such exercises on our own. We would like to work with emergency services and check our equipment in a simulated operation. This demonstration model, however, will not be used in a real operation.

But the system’s components have been used in real life—during last year’s floods in Poland.

PW: Yes, the software part of the system was. Some image analysis algorithms were used to show flood areas on satellite photos. As part of the Proteus project, a team from the Poznań University of Technology and the Center for Space Research—with the support of the PIAP and the Institute of Meteorology and Water Management (IMGW)—supported flood control operations. We used the European SAFER program, thanks to which we obtained satellite images. These images were analyzed on an ongoing basis and the information was transmitted to the State Fire Service and later to the Government Security Center and to provincial police headquarters. Our analyses were used by units out in the field and in command centers.

With the support of Proteus, an analysis of the satellite images of the flooded areas was made, and recommendations were prepared on how to quickly remove the water. Satellite maps, digital maps and three-dimensional terrain models were used as well as up-to-date data on the state of dikes and the water level. This made it possible to map the situation after the floodwaters receded. With this information, a team of geologists, hydrologists and geographers could prepare recommendations, for example, for selecting the places where levees had to be broken and on how to position the pumps so as to achieve the best result.

Where have your robots been tested? Where can they be tested?

PW: In May 2011, the mobile robots produced by the PIAP were for the first time tested by State Fire Service units specializing in chemical hazards and a firefighting unit operated by the petrochemical company Petrochemia Płock. The purpose of the tests was to identify the specific needs of chemical hazard operations. The resistance of the robots to chemical contamination was checked, as well as how easy it was to decontaminate them, their navigability, and the way in which the sensors operated and the samples were collected. With these tests, we got a better insight into how to design robots as part of the Proteus system.

At the end of the project the unmanned aircraft will also be tested. The aircraft will be available for use in an emergency related to a forest fire, when up-to-date information is needed on where the fire is and how it is spreading. An operator sitting in the command center can have the aircraft hover over a site and send in images of what’s happening. Such a plane can fly for several hours without a break.

Do Polish emergency services have similar equipment?

PW: Emergency services already use mobile robots and unmanned aerial vehicles in their operations. This has become increasingly popular in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are already thousands of such devices. But our system is not intended for the military. Projects financed from EU funds are civilian in nature. One of the target users is the Border Guard. At Warsaw’s Okęcie airport and at the airports in ŁódĽ and in the Gdańsk-Sopot-Gdynia area, such systems are already in use. We made these robots; it’s just that these are older designs.

Mobile robots have been used by the police in Poland since 2000, in particular by police bomb squads to identify and sometimes neutralize explosives or suspicious-looking packages left at airports and train stations.

We have also included the fire service in the project. Firefighters showed an interest in the functionality of the system and its components—the robots, the aircraft and the command center. This year, the fire service bought a mobile robot, produced earlier at the PIAP, after a chemical unit saw its capabilities during tests. It must be remembered that the work of the fire service and the police involves big risks, and therefore robots should be sent in wherever possible, instead of people. Modern technology will offer more and more such opportunities.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a system that is already available on the market than build one from scratch on your own?

PW: The robots produced by the PIAP have the same level of technical sophistication and the same, if not broader, functions. We wanted to do this on our own because after all Polish research centers and companies should have the know-how necessary to develop and produce such systems. The point is to increase their potential for innovation through work on such systems. By integrating the mobile robots and sensors into a single system, we can gain the same kind of expertise that is being developed around the world. Technological progress allows us to use new materials and new IT solutions to make sure the robot does a better job carrying out its tasks.

Will the results of your work be patented?

PW: Patent applications are being filed for individual solutions in the system. After all we have three robots, 10 sensors, and personal monitoring equipment, which means equipment with which we can observe where rescuers are moving, take their pulse and keep track of their other vital bodily functions. This comes with a console for controlling the robots, and all this is connected into a system for the exchange of data. The whole set can be the final product. However, selected parts of the system—which is designed in such a way that we can use it in whole or only in a selected configuration—can also be put out on the market.

Can products intended for Polish emergency services be sold abroad as well?

PW: Yes. It makes no sense to think of markets other than the global market because it would be possible to sell only a few products in whole here even if the economic situation in Poland were excellent. Rescuers, the police and the army have fairly similar general requirements, though they differ in details, because there are different procedures in different countries. We are active on the market, have experience on the international market and know how to deal with these differences, how to make modifications. The PIAP works with partners in other EU countries. Research as part of EU projects is conducted together with partners from around the world. These projects are carried out as part of civilian programs, but also programs by the European Defence Agency. We have customers for our commercial products, primarily in neighboring countries, but also in China, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia.

Is the PIAP interested in expanding the Proteus system in the future?

PS: We will need funds to expand the system or its individual components to make sure they are reliable and meet the expectations of emergency services. The demonstration model must be turned into a prototype and undergo many tests. Cooperation with the National Center for Research and Development—which has taken over some of the tasks that were previously handled by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education—makes it possible to hope that the research results will be put to business practice. This explains why the National Center for Research and Development now takes care of the financial settlements related to our project.

For now, the system can be activated to show how it works, and it is possible to do tests. But this doesn’t produce income. It is necessary to build a service, training and marketing network, develop production documentation and a user’s manual, obtain the required certificates, and, what’s most important, find a customer. This requires market research and brand building efforts. All this is much more difficult than scientific research because it is associated with risk for those doing this. Unfortunately, none of these projects could be financed by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR), which would take on some of the risk. There must be an institution or a businessman who will say: “There’s business to be done; we will invest, take the risk, and try to take care of production and sales.” In the case of Proteus, the PIAP is not enough—selling such a system is not a task for our institution.

Is risk the biggest problem when it comes to putting this technology to commercial use?

PS:Industry, preferably domestic industry, should be willing to take the risk. But the question is whether emergency services will want to buy our product and whether they will do so at the price we offer.

Marketing and market research is not the job of those who built the system. The problem is that declarations of cooperation do not guarantee anything. The market must respond positively to this proposal. We hope the NCBiR will finance legal advice and help create mechanisms that will make it easier for businesspeople to acquire and use the expertise generated in the course of the project for their own products. We also hope that, during further stages, Proteus will get such a financing arrangement in which risk will be spread between the businessman and the state.

To sum up, why is the Proteus system worth buying?

PW: Simply because no other product like this is available elsewhere in the world. Individual components of such a system are produced, but an integrated system consisting of these parts is not available for civilian services. Our product offers technology tailored to the needs of services responsible for public security. Finally, the price: for now, what we offer can only be compared with military equipment and solutions in terms of price, and the conclusion from this comparison is that our system would certainly be cheaper.
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