IROS 2020 Workshop on Humanitarian Robotics

October 25, 2020


Robots have become more and more common in High-Income Countries (HICs) but use in Lower- and Middle-Income Countries (LICs and MICs, respectively) is virtually non-existent. While this lack of use is not surprising to most people, there are many issues facing these communities where robots could make a huge impact. Consider Cambodia, one of the most unexploded ordnance contaminated countries in the world, robots could be used to keep humanitarian demining and explosive ordnance disposal technicians out of harm’s way. In India, where traffic congestion can be severe, drones could be used to increase the speed of supplies to first responders – this also has application in rural communities in the United States. In post-disaster relief, like recent events in Haiti or Indonesia, robotic devices could be used for infrastructure inspection and search and rescue missions. In these cases, and many more, robots could be the difference between life and death.

The application and success of robots in LICs and MICs is not just a matter of the specific robotic technology being available or feasible, but also involves a broad range of environmental, cultural, structural, political, socio-economic and resource constraints that are critical to consider when developing robots and other technologies for LICs and MICs. A fundamental reason behind failure of technology solutions in LICs and MICs is that there exists a disconnect between technology developers (e.g., academic researchers and companies) and humanitarian field workers and the communities they work in. Developers rarely know what tools humanitarian workers in-the-trenches need and sometimes don’t even know what the critical problems are that need to be solved. Only humanitarian field workers know what is needed and what solutions are truly sustainable.

This workshop will bring together roboticists, policy makers, representatives from funding agencies, and humanitarian field workers to share their expertise and experience with each other and the greater IROS community. This group will focus on understanding what problems exist in humanitarian engineering and how best to approach them with robotic technologies. This will be achieved through keynote talks focused on specific projects discussed in the broader humanitarian robotics context, short talks about various ongoing projects, panel discussions focused on funding, policy, and the perspectives of field workers, and guided networking. In the end, we hope that this workshop will result in new ideas and connections that will spur the development of robotic solutions to some of the most difficult challenges in the humanitarian world.

Topics of interest

Below is a list of topics that will be addressed and/or discussed in the course of this workshop

  • Robotics in Low-Income and Middle-Income Countries
  • Humanitarian Robotics Applications, which may include:
    • Avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions
    • Floods and tsunamis
    • Wind storms (hurricanes, tornadoes)
    • Epidemics and pandemics (Covid-19)
    • Mining and mineral disasters
    • Pollution monitoring and cleaning (e.g. oil spills, inland water monitoring, …)
    • Chemical emergencies from industrial accidents
    • Nuclear incidents and similar cleanup efforts of contaminated sites
    • Structural collapse (e.g. bridge and dam failures)
    • Fires (wild and urban)
    • Demining (landmine detection and clearance)
    • Explosive ordnance disposal
  • Low-cost Robotics
  • Robot Policy
  • Funding for Humanitarian Robotics

Intended audience

The intended audience for this workshop is relatively broad, considering the broad nature of the field of humanitarian robotics. The workshop will target anyone in the IROS community who is working on robotic technologies that could have application in the humanitarian world. We will specifically focus advertising on members of the Robotics and Automation Society Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Robotics (RAS-SIGHT) and members of the Robotics and Automation Society Technical Committees that could have potential interest, like the Technical committee on Robotics Research for Practicality (R2P). In addition, we are hoping to attract a number of future humanitarian robotics researchers by specifically focusing advertising on PhD students and early career researchers.

Invited Speakers

The following speakers have been invited to present at the workshop.

Introduction Speakers:

  • Garrett Clayton, Villanova University
  • Lino Marques, University of Coimbra
  • Raj Madhavan, U.S. Department of State

Keynote Speakers:

  • C. Nat Nataraj, Villanova University
  • Edson Prestes, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
  • M. Bernardine Dias, Diyunu Consulting LLC
  • Maya Cakmak, University of Washington (to be confirmed)

Panel Discussion -- Funding and Government Agencies:

  • Jordan Berg, Program Director for Robotics and NRI at NSF
  • Steven J. Thomson, USDA (to be confirmed)
  • In addition to these speakers, we are actively engaging USAID, FEMA, and the US Department of State in order to identify representatives to take part in this panel.

Panel Discussion -- Users and Policy Makers:

  • Allen Tan, Golden West Humanitarian Foundation
  • Raj Madhavan
  • M. Bernardine Dias, Diyunu Consulting LLC
  • Nicholas Torbet, Halo Trust (to be confirmed)

In addition to the presenters above, we will solicit members of RAS-SIGHT to present their projects in humanitarian robotics (

Structure of the event

The event will include:
1) Introductory talks to put the field of humanitarian robotics in context,
2) Four keynote talks focused on research/applications of robotics in humanitarian situations,
3) Panel discussions,
4) Short project talks,
5) Networking opportunities.
With this format, a good mix of information giving, Q&A and networking will be achieved.
A good deal of time for networking will be built in to the schedule. We plan to have time for discussion after every presenter and will allow a longer period at the end of the workshop to facilitate person-to-person connection. We hope that this workshop will spur the organization of future workshops (perhaps on more focused sub-topics) and are hoping to develop a special issue of a journal.


This workshop is being endorsed by the Robotics and Automation Society Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Robotics (RAS-SIGHT). An endorsement letter is attached.


Below is a tentative program for the workshop, also available for download in PDF format.

Time Talk Comments
9:00-9:15 Welcome Presented by the Organizers
9:20-9:50 Robotics in a Humanitarian Context Presented by the Organizers
9:55-10:25 Policy Presented by the Organizers
10:30-11:00 Education and Outreach Presented by the Organizers
11:00-11:30 Keynote: Increasing First Response Speed using Drones in India C. Nat Nataraj
11:30-12:10 Keynote: Increasing First Response Speed using Drones in India C. Nat Nataraj
12:15-12:55 Keynote: Ethics and AI Edson Prestes
13:00-13:30 Panel Discussion: Funding and Government Agencies See above
14:30-15:10 Keynote: Teaching English in Rural Africa through Conversational Robotic Agents Maya Cakmak
15:15–15:55 Keynote: Bridging the Gap Between Academic Work and Field Deployments M. Bernadine Dias
16:00–16:30 Panel Discussion: Users and Policy Makers See above
16:30–17:00 Coffee break
17:00–18:00 Talks will be solicited from the RAS-SIGHT community
18:00–18:45 Networking Organized networking activity like a networking roundtable.
18:45–19:00 Closing Remarks Presented by Organizers
19:00 End


Garrett M. Clayton
Villanova University, USA

Lino Marques
University of Coimbra, Portugal

Raj Madhavan
U.S Department of State, USA