Two robots developed in Massachusetts were shipped to Surfside, Fla., over the weekend to help rescue crews search for survivors in the wreckage of a tragic condominium building collapse there.
More than 150 people are still unaccounted for following the incident Thursday, which has killed at least 10.
“We immediately reached out to our contacts and asked if there was anything we could do,” said Tom Frost, head of the Chelmsford-based business that designs and develops the robots. “This is a critical time, and we want to help.”
The robots’ roots can be traced back to Bedford-based iRobot — best known for Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner — which designed them as part of a defense contract with the federal government more than 20 years ago. In 2016, the firm spun out its defense business as Endeavor Robotics, and that company was acquired by California-based Teledyne FLIR as part of a merger about six weeks ago.
Last week, Frost’s team sent both a 5- and 50-pound robot, as well as a Massachusetts-based employee, to Surfside. Controlled by an iPad-like device and equipped with a camera, the robots allow responders to see into hard-to-reach or dangerous areas, and its sensors can detect sound or heat.
Frost has been working on the technology since its iRobot days, and he said the company has a long history of responding to emergency situations. He said he took the robots to search through rubble after 9/11 for weeks, adding that said the primary function of the machines after building collapses is to traverse areas that would be unsafe for first-responders.
“In a collapse like [Surfside], there are going to be very small voids that are dangerous or impossible to get into,” he said. “Our small, 5-pound robot could possibly enter into those voids and crawl around.”
He said the robots can also be used to evaluate surrounding buildings that may have been impacted by a collapse but are still standing, before sending in a human crew.
The company’s 45,000-square-foot Chelmsford location designs robots primarily used by military and law enforcement personnel during hazardous missions, such as bomb disposals or hostage situations. The Massachusetts State police used one of the firm’s robots during the standoff with the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013, as did crews in 2018 during the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley.
Teledyne said it has more than 500 employees in the Greater Boston area, including about 125 that work out of Chelmsford.