Texas A&M Continues to Develop Disaster Relief Robots

TED Talk spotlights disaster relief robots with head of Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

Robin Murphy tells us that every year more than a million people die in disasters. Recovery can take up to thirty years and economic losses reach billions of dollars. Recovery can be reduced by up to three years by reducing the initial response time by one day. These are the facts that drive Murphy as she heads the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University.

Murphy’s TED talk, These robots come to the rescue after a disaster, shows several of the center’s disaster relief robots and showcases their efforts from the 2001 World Trade Center bombing to the 2014 Oso mudslides.

UAVs, both rotorcrafts and fixed wing crafts, have been widely used in disaster relief since 2005. iSENSYS rotorcrafts helped structural engineers during Hurricane Katrina to assess damage to several buildings. Precisionhawk fixed wing was used during the Oso mudslides for geospatial surveying. Rescue workers, property owners and the salmon fisheries all needed data to understand the position, movement and direction of the mudslides.

The Oso trip took engineers in Arlington seven hours to complete including travel time, surveying time, travel time back to base and data crunching. Murphy estimates this would have taken up to three days using any other data collection system and might not have had the high resolution images that the robots were able to collect.

Unmanned marine vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles are also explored, along with their parts in the Japanese tsunami and World Trade Center rescue efforts. Robin stresses that these robots aren’t meant to replace humans or dogs in rescue efforts but in doing things that could otherwise not be done.

Robin Murphy is a great speaker with an obvious love for pushing the boundaries of what can be done with robotics. Her ideas here about using robotics for data gathering and data processing are incredible. Texas A&M is doing work not just to make better robots but also to make the controls easier and more intuitive to use. She uses the example that a chemical engineer is not trained in UAV operation but would know the areas where a UAV would need to go for surveying damage in a chemical spill.

Knowing where to send what data becomes a problem. Sending everything can overwhelm data networks and overwhelm the cognitive ability of people trying to process the data. Sending too little data can result in missing key points necessary for disaster relief. Those are the challenges Murphy’s team is working through to help disaster areas recover faster.

(Images courtesy TED.com, CRASAR, and Texas A&M University)