Monday, October 03, 2005

"ROBOTICS: Bots prove their fitness as first responders"

The first responders surveying the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought in Louisiana and Mississippi were not all human. Autonomous vehicles also had a role, in an early indication of how robots might expedite the government's much-maligned response capability in future disasters. Vehicles that can go where humans cannot safely venture in the critical hours after a catastrophe have been developed at the center, which receives National Science Foundation funding, since the 1990s. The first application of center equipment for disaster response was the deployment of ground robots in Manhattan on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, to search the rubble of the World Trade Center. After Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast in August, disaster responders deployed the center's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to search remote flooded areas in Mississippi. Within two hours of arriving on the scene, the UAVs had "cleared" a town by showing that no survivors were trapped — far faster than would have been possible by boat or manned helicopter, said Safety Security Rescue Research Center team member Robin Murphy, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). Ground robots also aided in the Katrina response, searching structurally un-sound buildings in New Orleans. For such missions, CRASAR last year developed a sensor that enables a robot to determine whether a victim is dead or merely unconscious. Called a triage sensor by its commercial developers, Radiance Technologies Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.), the device can quickly screen for vital signs. On the battlefield, robots equipped with the sensor could be used to check downed soldiers, mitigating the risks to human medics. The fixed-wing UAV used in the Katrina response had both video feeds and a thermal imagery feed streaming from up to 1,000 feet away to provide overview scenes of the disaster area. The vehicle was launched manually by throwing it into the air and required a clear landing area of only about five car lengths. Also used was a miniature, electric T-Rex helicopter, courtesy of, that carried a streaming video camera. The hovering craft could scan areas from an altitude of less than 250 feet, its zoom lens inspecting rooftops and even peering in windows.