Robots Readied for Next Hurricane

TAMPA -

The hurricane response robots are actually unmanned, micro air vehicles. Miniature helicopters and fixed-wing model planes equipped with cameras and sensors to gather information from areas that are unreachable by rescue workers.

MURPHY: These small radio-controlled helicopters that can go look in people's attics to see if anybody is trapped there. That can interact with the people trapped on the roof and are so portable that as you get into a situation the responders in the law enforcement community get to something, they can pop up the helicopter and take a quick look.

Dr. Robin Murphy is a USF Computer Science and Engineering Professor with more than one disaster response to her credit. She took her land robots to help look for survivors at the World Trade Center after the 9-11 attack.

And as director of the USF Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, Murphy was called upon to help survey Hurricane Katrina damage in Mississippi and destruction on Marco Island after Hurricane Wilma. There the team used a miniature pontoon boat or robot raft.

MURPHY: You can use that to go look at pilings to go look at the footings of bridges you can look at seawalls. You can see whether a channel is actually open. And boy, if you're trying to figure out whether you can get over this bridge you want to look under water and above water.

But the USF robot-assisted team does more than help assess disaster damage. They also study how emergency workers interact with the robots. That's the specialty of Dr. Jenny Burke - a researcher at the center.

BURKE: We want to study what are the most effective ways for teams to use a robot to use a MAV in a hurricane response. To do that, we have to have cameras on the different people to see what they're looking at. We're also going to be filming them and taking field notes externally.

Professor Murphy - who has named her land robots after female science fiction writers - says studies show if an object moves humans are wired to think of it as alive.

MURPHY: Sure as heck we watched responders start talking to the robot, making gestures being very polite when they talked to it making eye contact so it is natural regardless whether they look like anything anthropomorphic or have those faces that you see on entertainment robots.

So, Murphy's team started studying the social interaction between people and robots. Dr. Carolina Chang is a computer scientist from Venezuela. She's looking at how robots can assist medically during a disaster.

CHANG: We are now trying to test new sensors to see if somebody that we find has vital signs without even having to touch the person. If there's a situation where hazardous materials are involved the first responders are normally using Level A or B suits so its very hard for them with all this gear to come in contact with the person.

The USF center is working with the industry to develop such a sensor that can check if a person is breathing or has got a pulse without touching them.

Making it easy to use all that new technology is the goal of doctoral candidate Jeff Craighead.

CRAIGHEAD: My dissertation involves using video games for simulating disaster events and training potential operators with the robots so that they get a better idea of how the robot will behave in the field when they actually try and use it.

Professor Murphy says training is important but so is field research. A new $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will help pay for the gas, lodging and equipment so that the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue can respond to as many as four disasters.

MURPHY: Every time we take equipment out into the field, responders come by and have new ideas. How do we capture those new ideas immediately and transfer these back into a list of research questions, things for our industry partners to commercialize and what training is needed to make this happen. And make this happen not like two years later, not like for the next hurricane season but for the next hurricane.

Whether it's helping track diesel fuel leaks at a destroyed marina or searching for survivors in their attics, Murphy says her team is ready for the hurricane season.

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