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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Using robots to abate nanotoxicity in emergencies

Posted on 5th July 2016 at 15:45pm

Our R&D bloggers examine how the RASSR robot can help to protect first responders in environments where nanotoxic particles are present.

While nanoparticles can be used for a multitude of good things, they can occasionally inherit toxic properties. In warfare especially, it is common for nanotoxic particles to have a lingering effect that can cause the onset of untoward, avoidable illnesses.

Nanoparticles can have toxic properties that can cause illness, so identifying their presence is vital in order to protect responders (Shutterstock / Georgy Shafeev)

While there are currently no drugs to destroy nanotoxic particles once they enter a person’s bloodstream, technology such as the Rapid Area Sensitive Sight and Reconnaissance robot (RASSR) can provide recognition and identification of nanoparticles in the environment and the potential hazards they may cause.

RASSR is operated by a remote control and laptop and it functions to identify current conditions without exposing others. The RASSR robot has an extending claw, which picks up debris and gathers samples; it also has a camera, which gives a 360-degree view of the environment. The robot is further equipped with a laser to identify chemical compounds in unknown substances.

The military is currently using this technology as a means to train personnel in managing nanotoxicity exposure using drills. Marines and sailors of the Assessment and Consequence Management team underwent environmental training at the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii on May 13, 2014.

Lance Cpl. Shannon Keene, left, a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Marine with CBRN platoon, Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, lies on a table as fellow Marines remove his gear after passing out in the field within a contaminated environment as a simulated casualty during a CBRN training exercise at landing zone Westfield, May 13, 2014. The Marines utilised the Rapid Area Sensitive Sight and Reconnaissance robot, the only one in existence, to investigate the hazardous areas to search for and mitigate potentially harmful substances CBRN personnel may not be aware of (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matthew Bragg)

According to Staff Sgt Jesse Bramer, the 3rd MarDiv CBRN Chief and ACM team incident commander, practising nanotoxic particle exposure and response drills mean: “(We can) discover our own shortfalls so we can fix it and not let it happen in the future.”

The RASSR robot may prove to be a critical adjunct for soldiers during war to assist in abating nanotoxic exposure to soldiers. However, the robot does not eradicate nanotoxic particles, although it does have a significant impact on how first responders protect themselves within certain environments that they must work within.

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, many first responders at Ground Zero reported that they did not wear respirators and consumed exposed food on site without proper precautions, thus allowing for inhalation and ingestion of fine dust particles, which contained organic nanoparticles and therefore presented a high risk for nanotoxicity. As a result, many of these first responders developed serious illnesses, which began as an uncontrollable persistent cough, in addition to chronic fatigue.

Again, while RASSR does not eliminate the dangers of nanotoxic particles, especially to the residents who permanently live in these areas, this type of an early detection robot is an excellent adjunct to early particulate identification and limitation/elimination strategy development for nanotoxic particle risk management.

The Rapid Area Sensitive Sight and Reconnaissance robot examines an aircraft leaking chemical agents in the environment during a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear training exercise at Westfield, May 13, 2014 (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matthew Bragg)

With the early detection by the RASSR robot, first responders can take proper precautions such as wearing respirators and not consuming contaminated food; as well as warning bystanders of the potential dangers by identifying airborne particulate matter.

The RASSR robot is a step towards the mitigation, minimisation and defence against nanotoxic warfare, until such a time as there might be future advancements in technology and drugs that will conceivably annihilate nanotxoic particles.

Authors: Ashley Monaco, Ian PortelliCarly Esteves

  • This blog is based on a more in-depth article, to be published in the September 2016 issue of the Crisis Response Journal (12:4)

Works Cited:

  1. Bragg, M (2014, May 15): 3rd MarDiv CBRN platoon conducts exercise; Retrieved June 20, 2016, from 
  2. Gatti, A M, & Montanari, S (2015): Case studies in nanotoxicology and particle toxicology
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