Emergency personnel, such as firefighters, bomb technicians, and urban search and rescue specialists, can be exposed to a variety of extreme hazards during the response to natural and human-made disasters. In many of these scenarios, a risk factor is the presence of hazardous airborne chemicals. The recent and rapid advances in robotics and sensor technologies allow emergency responders to deal with such hazards from relatively safe distances. Mobile robots with gas-sensing capabilities allow to convey useful information such as the possible source positions of different chemicals in the emergency area. However, common gas sampling procedures for laboratory use are not applicable due to the complexity of the environment and the need for fast deployment and analysis. In addition, conventional gas identification approaches, based on supervised learning, cannot handle situations when the number and identities of the present chemicals are unknown. For the purpose of emergency response, all the information concluded from the gas detection events during the robot exploration should be delivered in real time. To address these challenges, we developed an online gas-sensing system using an electronic nose. Our system can automatically perform unsupervised learning and update the discrimination model as the robot is exploring a given environment. The online gas discrimination results are further integrated with geometrical information to derive a multi-compound gas spatial distribution map. The proposed system is deployed on a robot built to operate in harsh environments for supporting fire brigades, and is validated in several different real-world experiments of discriminating and mapping multiple chemical compounds in an indoor open environment. Our results show that the proposed system achieves high accuracy in gas discrimination in an online, unsupervised, and computationally efficient manner. The subsequently created gas distribution maps accurately indicate the presence of different chemicals in the environment, which is of practical significance for emergency response.
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