The Washington Post

Tornadoes, natural disasters: How high-tech robots help in search and rescue

May 25, 2011

With an increasing number of natural and human-made disasters striking the nation and world, how can we be more efficient in search and rescue missions? According to Robin R. Murphy, we can use high-tech robots.

Join Murphy as she chats about how these robots can be used to detect signs of life in otherwise inaccessible disaster environments -- ranging from deep, dark crevasses created by piles of debris to sites that are submerged under water.

She will be online Wednesday, May 25 at 1:30 p.m. ET to chat. Ask your questions now!

I'm a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M who specializes in all types of rescue robots: land, sea, and air. I've participated in over a dozen disasters starting with the 9/11 WTC and incidents through our Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. We try to match the best robots for the responders' needs through our humanitarian Roboticists Without Borders program. I was in Japan twice recently, once to assist with mission planning for the UAV that inspected the Fukushima reactors and once bringing a team of ROVs to help open a fishing port and to conduct recovery operations in towns north of Sendai.

When you have FEMA certified Urban SAR dogs and their handlers? In most situations the dog will always be superior to the robot. End of story so stop wasting the taxpayers money. I have played victim for a FEMA's certified Urban SAR dog and I am sorry no robot will ever be able to do the job better.

Robots don't replace people or dogs! Most ground robot scenarios go like this: the dog team gets a hit, it's confirmed, the Tech Specialist tries to see with a search camera (boroscope or camera mounted on a wand), if they can't tell from there, then depending on the void type, one of the shoe-box sized robots or 18 foot long "caterpillar" type of robot boroscope would be of use. So think of this as complementary, not competitive!

Where are these robots being used most?

The USA leads in the deployment of all types of robots (land, sea, air) for search and rescue. Our Center has participated in the most disasters or incidents (13). Second place goes to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Right now, only one search team in the US owns a rescue robot- New Jersey Task Force 1. They have ground robots recently used at the Hackensack parking garage collapse. Most grants to responders won't cover the costs until NIST/ASTM completes standards for them- and then Congress will need to make money available for them the way they did for bomb squad robots.

As a result, groups that really need a robot borrow ours. (Hurt Locker robots are usually way too big for search and rescue)

Are any of these robots being used in Joplin or any of the other areas hit by tornadoes recently? Were they used in any of the earthquake situations in Japan or Haiti?

To the best of my knowledge, no robots are being used. The most likely use would be an aerial vehicle- National Guards often get a Predator up in the air to get a quick overview of the extent, but Joplin had great (through very sad and distressing) footage from manned helis.

Ground robots are rarely of use in tornadoes because dogs can tell if a person is in there and homes collapses are rarely more than 20 feet deep-- and current technology can handle looking to those depths. Ground robots are more useful for commercial, engineered buildings- which typically withstand wind.

Aerial were and ground robots are in use at Fukushima. Some ground robots were used a bit in the tsunami, but marine (sea) vehicles are more useful. They can search underwater and also inspect critical infrastructure like bridges, pipelines, ports. I assisted  the UAV team at Fukushima and led one of the three  marine vehicle teams in Japan.

Marine vehicles were used in Haiti by the Army Corp of Engineers for port clearing, a UAV flew once in Haitian airspace, and Predators flew outside of Haitian airspace.

How much does a rescue robot cost? Is there any hope that, as demand for them increases, the price will decrease? I was surprised to learn how few there are. Rescue operations are time sensitive and it strikes me that we need more positioned across the country (and the world).

The rule of thumb is that small ground robot cost in increments of $50K. We have some shoe-box sized robots (Inuktun, American Standard) that run just over $50K. We borrow a caterpillar robot from the Japanese that is valued at $100k. Our larger HazMat bot is $150k.

Small aerial vehicles (bigger version of those ParrotDrones you see in the mall) run $50-100K.

Marine vehicles, having to be really and truly waterproof, and really specialized sonars, run in the hundreds of thousands.

We at CRASAR strongly believe that every search and rescue team should have portfolio of land, sea, and air robots to use- because time is critical. 1 hour is the timeframe for major life saving, responders need to  understand a massive situation and its nuances within 24 hours, and most of the life saving and rapid recovery work is done in the first 72 hours. Often we get called in too late to make a difference...

Do you work with underwater robots? I have been fascinated by the research they are finding, especially those that can reach depths that humans can't sustain. I know this is not the topic of this discussion, but if you are familiar with research, I would appreciate learning any updates you may know of. The oceans are the least explored part of Earth.

Actually this is of tremendous relevance! The real "win" in the Japan tsunami search and recovery is marine vehicles, particularly remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)- small, agile versions of the ones used in the BP Oil Spill. We took 4 of them to Japan and assisted there, working in collaboration with the International Rescue System Institute who lined up requests from different townships.

Think of all the bridges, ports, pipelines that are underwater! And the missing 10,000 people. Probably underwater. And all in shallow debris filled areas that the Japanese Coast Guard can't deploy manual divers. ROV and AUVs are incrediable tools- we've been pushing for them in response and recovery since Hurricane Wilma!

What are some of the new things that you guys are planning with these robots? What do you hope they'll eventually be able to do someday?

Great question! One of the things is that we hope to see robots in the field do the great things that they can already do in the lab! I know that sounds silly, but really there's a huge gap between what robots can do and what gets commercialized. So getting what exists now in terms of sensors, intelligence, mapping, computer vision onboard would be fanstastic.

In terms of what cool things people are working on now, I think victim management is a biggie-- what do you do with a survivor when you find them? (The Chilean miners were a special case, most victims in earthquakes take on the order of 4-10 hours to extricate- but still that's 4-10 hours...) We're working on a "survivor buddy" robot with Stanford under funding from NSF and Microsoft (thank you!!!)

Three of my favorites for ground robots are the small snake robot being developed by Howie Choset at CMU, the sandworm robot being developed by Dan Goldman at Georgia Tech which will be able to  "swim" through debris, and the Terminatorbot and pulsing tether being developed by Rich Voyles at Denver University.

I'd like to see a more "emergency informatics" approach, where all the data, all the robots and people and assets, everything is coordinated in a way that is very easy for decision makers.

You mentioned being in Japan. The Japanese always seem to be the darling of the media with their robots, whether it be a dog, or a humanoid robot that looks really realistic (and creepy). Why didn't we see any of these types of robots - ones that always make the headlines - when robots were really needed in Japan?

Those types of robots are generally lab robots designed to help explore basic research in controls or artificial intelligence- they usually aren't designed to be "really" used, though they are incredibly useful for research. There's only a couple of universities in the USA that do field robotics, mostly CMU and Texas A&M.

Now, that said, that doesn't mean the Japanese aren't working on rescue robots and didn't have robots there. The sizable rescue robotics community got started in Japan in 1995 (Kobe Earthquake) and in the USA at the same time (due to Oklahoma City bombing). The International Rescue Systems Institute (IRS- yes, really, that's the abbreviation they use)  is a consortium of 7+ universities working on this problem, complementary to the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue here in the USA. IRS has been working on ground robots and did some deployments and will be going to help map Fukushima at the end of the month. They just aren't getting the press. Our ROV deployment was a joint IRS-CRASAR event, because we saw the need for ROVs after Hurricane Charley and spate of hurricanes. They didn't see as much need before the tsunami. It's hard to cover all of the needs in one center- that's why our two groups (as well as with groups in Europe) work together extensively!

It looks like the questions have stopped so I'm going to log out. We have more info at and on YouTube here.


Thank you so much for your interest in what I see as a critical technology to help the responders (and canines) do even more. And continue to support the victims - absolutely terrible with all the devastation.

In This Chat
Robin R. Murphy
Robin Roberson Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M and directs the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and its Roboticists Without Borders program. She holds a B.M.E. in mechanical engineering, a M.S. and Ph.D in computer science in 1980, 1989, and 1992, respectively, from Georgia Tech. She has over 100 publications in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human-robot interaction including the textbook “Introduction to AI Robotics. She is a Fellow of the IEEE and serves on numerous governmental boards, including the Defense Science Board.
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