Rescue robots

Rescue robotics founder talks about enabling emergency responders to routinely save lives through physically situated artificial intelligence.

Dr Robin Murphy Dr Murphy works at Texas A&M University, in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, where she created the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) [new window]. She became involved in this area in 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, when one of her graduate students went off to become part of the search and rescue volunteer team.

"My student, John Blitch went to assist when the building collapsed, and came back just devastated because he felt like these small rovers that everybody was looking to build for Mars exploration could have been used to save lives," she says.

"The idea was that you could insert them into the interior of the rubble to find those trapped. Typically in a response you're lucky if you can find victims right there at the surface within ten, maybe 20 feet. Most trapped survivors are 40 feet or deeper in there, and you just can't get to them. With robots we could reach, and reassure them, quick enough.

"It became very compelling that someone needed to attack this domain, show people how robots could be used for search and rescue, so I started the research."

And so Murphy began to start building a community of researchers, getting emergency response organisations involved and looking at how rescue technology could be improved.

Rescue robots - engineers working at disaster sites

"It's a lifetime's work. That's one of the things that is so engaging to me, it is a life passion. This is what I do," Murphy says.

"Disasters happen very rarely, and then people pour in lots of money during the disaster, but it's the years and years of prep before that that make the difference. We do a lot of work at each disaster site," she says. "Our team just got back from a building collapse in Cologne, Germany. We write up our results, we work with industry to tell them what they could do that's different. We try to educate and share results with the scientific community."

Although still a young technology, the number of people working in this sector is growing. Snake robots are being built at Carnegie-Mellon and cockroaches at Case Western. These different designs allow robots to access tougher disaster zones, using different movement design and sizes to get through which were until recently, impossible gaps. But it's only out in the field that they can be tested for real.

Getting dirty

"One of the things that we learned was researchers are often overeager, saying they can do things whilst having no idea if it's really going to work. During a disaster you don't do anything unless you're really, really sure what it can and can't do," Murphy says.

"That requires a lot of field experience with mud, snow, and rain. It's not just in the lab, or running around a culvert pipe. Our team has dealt with many on-site collapsed buildings, so we know what robot will and won't work in each situation. We share our experience with the community so the robots can improve."

Indeed, design is key to the success and use of a rescue robot. For example CRASAR regularly uses designs shaped around caterpillars and snakes.

"When you think of a caterpillar you don't think of a powerful creature. But think of it as something that can go between these concrete floors that have been flattened together," Says Murphy. "We can look to see if there's something beyond. Then there's snakes - they can get into places we've never been able to before."

But the team is always looking for the next advancement, with one focus being on human-robot interaction. 

Designing robots to help disaster victims

They can now attach tubes to robots, offering survivors a drink whilst they wait for rescue, or a microphone so they can interact with the rescuer and keep calm. The robots can even blow hot air at the survivor if they are in a cold environment.

"Now the robot can carry small things to survivors," says Murphy. "During a recent mine collapse in Australia, there were two miners who were able to be given a walkie-talkie and some light so they could talk to friends. When they got bored they asked for an iPod so they could listen to the Foo Fighters whilst waiting for rescue!"

Microsoft has even funded the Buddy Survivor Pet, which is essentially a two-way video conferencing kit that can be put on a robot. You can surf the web, watch yourself appear on CNN with it or chat with family and friends, keeping you occupied whilst you wait for the rescuers to reach you.

However research has shown that humans may react in certain ways to the robots - they might feel they are rude by shining lights in their faces or getting too close. Working with psychologists to consider the state of mind of survivors, the CRASAR team are taking these factors on board when it comes to the design of future rescue robots and how they are used.

The research is endless but already benefits are clear. More and more lives are being saved thanks to rescue robots, and it all came about because of one engineer's goal to make a difference.