Welcome to the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University


CRASAR is a Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center whose mission is to improve disaster preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery through the development and adoption of robots and related technologies. Its goal is to create a “community of practice” throughout the world for rescue robots that motivates fundamental research, supports technology transfer, and educates students, response professionals, and the public. CRASAR is a dynamic mix of university researchers, industry, and responders.

CRASAR has participated in 15 of the 35 documented deployments of disaster robots throughout the world and have formally analyzed 9 others, providing a comprehensive archive of rescue robots in practice. Our industry partners and funding agencies make a wide range of small land, sea, and air robots available for use by responders at no charge through the Roboticists Without Borders program. Our human-robot crew organization and protocols developed first for UGVs, where studies show a 9 times increase in team performance, and then extended for small UAVs during our flights at Hurricane Katrina has been adopted by Italian and German UAV response teams and was used by the Westinghouse team for the use of the Honeywell T-Hawk at the Fukushima nuclear accident.

CRASAR helps organize and sponsor conferences such as the annual IEEE Safety Security Rescue Robotics conference and workshops such as the recent NSF-JST-NIST Workshop on Rescue Robots.

Resources Including Guides and Best Practices for Small UAVs at Disasters

A good overview of rescue robotics is in Disaster Robotics by Robin Murphy (MIT Press, Amazon, and Kindle)- Disaster Robotics is for both practitioners and researchers. It covers 34 deployments worldwide from 2001 through 2013, describes the missions, and next discusses the specific applications and lessons learned for ground (Chapter 3), aerial (Chapter 4), and marine (Chapter 5) vehicles, and then ends with recommendations on how to conduct deployments and field work (Chapter 6). Disaster Robotics won the 2014 PROSE honorable mention for best engineering and science writing.

Here are helpful 1 page guides and best practices for small unmanned aerial systems that have been incorporated into United Nations humanitarian standards and are continuing to evolve:

Click here for more information about CRASAR and its activities.

Donate online to CRASAR to support deployments of Roboticists Without Borders!

Recent News From Our Blog

Missions, Choice of sUAS Platforms, and Manpower for Flying Floods: Lessons learned from our deployment with Fort Bend County May 30-31, 2016

YouTube Preview ImageCRASAR was in the field from Monday and Tuesday (May 30-31, 2016) at the request of Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management, with Roboticists Without Borders member CartoFusion providing off-site data support.  We flew a small UAS (DJI Phantom 3 Pro) throughout the county to help them validate their flood inundation models, conduct hydrological forensics, and educate the public on why evacuations were necessary. This is our third response to flooding this year (Louisiana March, Fort Bend County April, and this event) and we continue to learn about missions, selection of sUAS, and crew organization and CONOPS building on my previous recommendations for flooding.  I am working on a formal cognitive work analysis using the shared roles model but some preliminary lessons that may be of use to other teams are discussed below. We’d like to especially thank Jeff Braun, Lach Mullen, Adam Wright, and Juling Bao from Fort Bend County. Traci Sarmiento served as VSO both days, Xiaosu Xiao and Grant Wilde took turns being data manager, and I was the pilot.

 

Check out some of the YouTube clips at (some of which were on the CBS news):
RWB member Hydronaulix also offered Texas Task Force 1 the use of five EMILY swiftwater rescue robots that we used in Greece (see NPR story here) but they weren’t needed.

Missions

Six distinct missions have emerged from working with emergency managers:
  • property damage assessment: can sUAS help document the number of houses damaged and the amount of damage in terms of height of water into the houses while there is still flooding in order to qualify the area for disaster assistance? Our experience in Louisiana suggests that UAS of any size are not a good fit because the UAS cannot see an 18 inch high water line on houses in a subdivision crowded with trees or cover much within LOS. This mission appears to be a better match for a robot boat which can zoom down the flooded streets.
  • flood mapping and projection of impact: can sUAS help document the extent of the flood, the impact on residents, roads, levees, etc.? sUAS appear to have advantages over manned aircraft for forested regions where the platform can operate safely at lower altitudes and hover and stare to detect flowing water in between trees. An expert can use the sUAS  in order to identify possible causes of unexpected flooding and mitigation.
  • verification of flood inundation models
  • flood monitoring over time: This is related to flood inundation modeling and one of the reasons why Fort Bend County had us fly multiple days.
  • justification for publicly accountable decisions: The documentation of flooding is useful for future land use planning. Fort Bend County was particularly interested in capturing compelling video of the floods in the western part of the county which were severely flooded to show residents in the eastern part of the county which had not been yet been flooded so that they could see why evacuations were mandated.
  • public information: Fort Bend County immediately posted the video to YouTube and began pointing citizens to the video to answer questions about their neighborhood. One of the neighborhoods filmed had an assisted living facility and relatives calling into the OEM were directed to look at the video and see that the flooding wasn’t going to impact their family member.
Flood mapping, verification of flood models, and flood monitoring are not new missions and have been known for some time. Property damage has always been a projected use of sUAS for floods, though we did not expect to encounter the practical problems introduced by trees, trees, and more trees. People like trees in their yards.

Choosing the type of sUAS

The majority of missions for sUAS (versus larger UAS that can fly higher and longer areas) are expert-in-the-loop missions (more formally called remote presence), where the expert wants to be able to view the video and then direct the sUAS to a better view. It is not clear that orthomosaics and digital elevation maps (DEM) are a priority. The emergency managers generally have DEM already (though they may be outdated) and the areathat they want to look at is so large that a sUAS team is unlikely to reach all of the areas if restricted to line of sight operations— this is where larger UAS or Civil Air Patrol can be of great value. Another problem is that the file size of orthomosaics is unwieldy for OEMs to handle, share, and post among themselves. Not that many mangers have laptops that can handle a 55GB file and the upload times are slow.

We have converged on quadcopters being the default platform because of expert-in-the-loop flying and because of the physical constraints of landing zones, though we don’t rule out fixed wing. In the field there is limited access to the area because of the flooding. Access points such as raised roads or levees also had high tension powerlines which can induce interference- indeed, we had one “whoa!” takeoff next to powerlines. (We won’t discuss the creepy horde of swarming insects making it unsafe to stand in one potential site, or the fire ant bites I am sporting from a misstep at another site.)  Flying near rivers or from residential areas is hard because of trees and power lines. Empty lots without trees are rare, especially in older and urban parts of town, though suburban areas may have soccer fields suitable for launching and recovering fixed-wing sUAS.

Manpower: Crew Organization and CONOPS

This is my area of research, so it is always of interest to me! As noted in previous blogs, my TED talk, and papers, it’s the data that is the barrier to adoption. We’ve converged on a 4 person field team plus dedicated data management team back at the base to handle the data. Gee, that sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, it is better than accidentally writing over data or taking extra hours to get data products to the OEM.

 

Let me explain about the field team. I see four major roles of the field team which leads to 4 people:
  • pilot, who is in charge of the sUAS
  • visual safety officer, who is not allowed to look at the pilot’s display or do anything but eyes on the sUAS and sky (and given the number of manned aircraft zipping by at low altitudes, that is an important and full time job)
  • agency expert, who actually knows what to look for and to opportunistically direct the flight
  • data manager, who immediately backs up the data (hard lesson learned at the 9/11 World Trade Center robot deployment) and makes sure all data is logged and stored for immediate hand-off to the OEM (want to give them that thumb drive as soon as sneaker net permits)

 

The pilot and VSO have to be dedicated roles, held by different people. In the future, one person could share the pilot and agency expert roles but for now it seems unreasonable to expect a flood inundation engineer to also be proficient with sUAS. One person can’t share the agency expert and VSO roles because then the person is sometimes looking at the display and sometimes at the sUAS, which is not permitted by regulations and bazillion of  safety studies.

 

There’s room for debate for having an agency expert- RWB member David Kovar points out that requiring an agency expert can hold up getting to the field. But in my experience, if the flights are exploratory, require expertise, and opportunistic, it is more effective in the long run to have them there. But not all missions for all disasters are remote presence. But for the missions that have emerged for the floods so far, this appears to be reasonable.
By the way, having an agency expert is valuable to the agency— citizens come up and ask questions that we can’t answer and they also like seeing that their officials are out there doing proactive things. It’s also important because it also helps with legitimacy. As a woman with a woman safety officer, we look more like a team of news people trying to sneak in and get footage than engineers operating under the official request of the county.

 

Back to roles, we’ve typically tried to keep it to a 3 person team by having the person serve as the VSO also serve as the data manager. Doubling up on roles seems like a great idea as the VSO takes notes, then when the platform lands, can take the data, make sure the files aren’t corrupted, and as the team drives to the next site, make backups, put in folders with filenames more helpful than say “DCIM”, and so on.

 

Except it never happens that way- which could be me. The VSO starts the process then before everything is done has to stop in the middle because of a) carsickness, b ) too bumpy to type, c) we’re at the next site and the VSO has to do a safety check and help set up, or d) all of the above. The pace just exceeds capacity. In Louisiana, we wound up sorting through a wad of video and imagery, requiring about 3 hours of extra effort at the end of a very long day. You can’t dump this on the agency person (“look, you’re now the data manager, follow this to do list! And remember, we’re here to help you!”) because they are busy making their own notes, talking to the OEM about what they are seeing, and talking to residents.

 

Bringing a fourth person along to do nothing but to sit in the truck with the air conditioning on and manage the data was a huge win on this last deployment. But again as David points out, a well honed team can do this. I suspect that that teams that do not fly together or fly these types of rapid fire missions (called ad hoc teams in industrial psychology)  will need the fourth person and real high performing teams will be able to combine roles.

 

But if you are handling data in the field, why do you need a data management team back at the base? Well, someone needs to create visualizations such as SituMap and summaries of where the data is from, edit high value snippets, upload data over a faster internet connections, etc. The field data manager doesn’t have access to the faster internet, can barely keep up with pace as it is so doesn’t have time to do snippets, and needs to head right back out to the field. Noooo, the OEM doesn’t do this. They are too busy to handle the data themselves. Their solution is to data management is to shout, “pause it there!” and then whip out their cellphone to video the video that is playing on the screen so that they can mail it and post it internally (an Ewok approach to snipeting and reducing resolution). They are trying to USE the information, not process it themselves. So while having Xiaosu or Grant come with us in the field was great, they couldn’t get it all done and we did not even try to work in the visualization software or photogrammetrics.
Again in theory, agencies have people dealing with ESRI and Big Files, but I have encountered this capacity once, maybe twice in my deployments. And in that case, the need to use these products caused a huge problem between the tactical responders and engineers and the people back in the emergency operations center.  So I still see there is a need for “immediate and intermediate” data processing.

More entries from our blog
Subscribe to our RSS Feed