Archive for July, 2009

RoboCup Rescue

robocup competitors

I’m in Graz for the RoboCup Rescue- my talk on Friday was well-received and it was great to see so many students doing such great work!

I finally got to meet Amir Soltanzadeh, my Facebook buddy, and leader of the AriAnA team- the team gave me their uniform- thanks! Iran has always been very active in RoboCup Rescue and AAAI rescue competitions- it’s certainly a practical application given the earthquakes in that area, though the real “killer app” is using robots to remove land mines. I was very impressed with how quickly the US and Iran set aside differences to allow the US international team to help at the 2003 Bam earthquake. Colleagues in Iran tried to arrange for CRASAR to attend but it would have taken 2 days by commercial air- too late to be of much help and too expensive to just check things out- and we could only get permission from the State department to fly with the military over, not back.

robocup testbed

The competition was well attended by about 20 teams from Europe and Asia (none from the US)- you can check out for more details. The competition arena designed by Adam Jacoff at NIST has to satisfy many constraints- it has to be cheap, shippable to different venues, repeatable so everyone can build their own, open and visible so that spectators can see, and still present a challenge! In the early years of the competition when it was held at IJCAI, Chief Ron Rogers of Florida Task Force 3 was involved and put up tarps to black out areas and created some water hazards. More realistic, but quite the barrier for new teams to get involved and hard on the spectators!

I haven’t been to RoboCup Rescue in several years. There was a surprising homogeneity between platforms. Almost all of the ground platforms have converged to a Packbot or Talon style with flippers and treads and a similar size, with manipulator arms. I didn’t see any innovative platforms such as snakes, legs (such as RHex), or even the wheel/leg combinations you see from Case Western. Most of the platforms were large enough to be mistaken for bomb squad or law enforcement robots.

Another common touch was the addition of a camera on a mount behind the manipulator arm (if there is one). This is to give the operator exproprioceptive information and compensate for the lack of sensing in robotics. Rescue robots always have a camera- that provides exteroceptive sensing- sensing of the world around the robot. Usually they have proprioceptive sensing- sensing of the robot’s internal position- but not always, the lack of proprioception on the mine crawler at the Crandal Canyon Utah mine disaster was a big problem. Many of the Operator Control Units had icons representing the relative position of the flippers, taking advantage of the proprioception. But there’s a third category of sensing- exproprioception: where is the body relative to the world? Am I stuck? About to fall over? Is my arm under a rock? Exproprioception is clearly important. And extremely difficult to do without a “skin” and good spatial reasoning.

So the teams are trying to get exproprioception through exteroception. That’s common in bomb squads and I’ve heard it referred to as the “we’ll just stick another camera on it” non-solution. That leads to challenges in the operator’s attention and situation awareness- which camera to look at, when? Also note that the higher the camera, the better the view. But the higher the camera, the less likely it can be used for a real response where the voids are less than 1m high and anything that sticks up or out snags. It’s a tough problem and hopefully one of these groups will find a more optimal solution.

Sadly, I saw perhaps 2 women total on the teams. We had hoped that the societal relevance of rescue robotics would help attract women to computer science and engineering but there was no evidence here. Hopefully, the lack of women is a fluke.


Collaboration at a Distance! TU Delft

What a great phrase from the researchers at TU Delft that captures a major aspect of emergency informatics: collaboration at a distance! Given that robots and embedded sensors provide a remote presence into places that people can’t get to (or get to quickly enough), the question is how to use it? Which leads to collaboration at a distance!

As we noted in a recent article (see “From Remote Tool to Shared Roles,” in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, special issue on New Vistas and Challenges for Teleoperation, 15:4, Dec.08, pp. 39-49), the real human-robot ratio isn’t having 1 person controlling a 1,000 robots but rather having a 1,000 people be able to use the data from a robot, without necessarily knowing that it’s from a robot. And certainly those 1,000 people won’t all know each other and may be working independently (and at cross-purposes), which David Woods at Ohio State calls polycentric control. Plus in order to use the data, we expect some ad-hoc teams to form and that they will use the visual data as a common ground (as per Jenny Burke’s PhD).

I was at the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft) on Wednesday to attend Maarten van Zomeran’s MS defense, as I had been invited to serve on his committee. Maarten did a great job with the Rubbleviewer and his MS was well attended- I am very proud. His thesis was chock full of interesting information beyond the Rubbleviewer, including a comparison of US FEMA search methods and information representation with United Nations INSARAG. Maarten has participated in two full scale exercises, one with the Czech team and one with the Netherland team in an exercise in Dubai- plus with the responders at Disaster City. An amazing grounding for his work in better representations and visualization!

It also gave me an opportunity to meet in person the research team there- they don’t focus on emergency response but that’s becoming an area of interest. A lot of great work in artificial intelligence, HCI, and especially software agents. Prof. Dr. Catholijn Jonker, head of Man Machine Interaction dept (and another right thinking woman!) proposed a way forward for continued work on the Rubbleviewer and collaboration in general. TJ de Greef was a great host (few things are better than great conversations over Dutch white beer in an outdoor plaza!) and I admire his industrial research expertise and research savvy. What a great group of people! Check out

I sat in on a undergraduate student capstone project presentation and was impressed not only by the topic and competence, but also that it was delivered in perfect English.

All that remains… return to Cologne

cologne site jun 09

I’m on travel this week in Europe. My first start was Cologne to meet with the gang from the Franhofer Institute and to present plaques to them and the Cologne Fire Department, thanking them for allowing us to participate in the State Archive Building Collapse. Hartmut, Sebastian, and Thorsten came down from Bonn for dinner and a walk by the collapse site, now leveled, waiting the conclusion of lawsuits, new officials, etc. It is hard to believe that it has only been 3 months. Not only has it only been 3 months, but the city had erected a temporary roof (like those used at stadiums) and removed it.

BTW, I was told the oldest, most valuable manuscripts were among the 20% forever lost.


Prof. Thomas Christaller was receiving a prestigious medal, so the timing was bad, but Harmut arranged a “mini-symposia” at the Franhofer Institute with Capt. Rorhle and me giving talks. All of Capt. Rorhle’s slides were in English, so despite him talking in German, it was totally fascinating. Perhaps the most fascinating was to see the timeline of events, from getting a call 2 minutes before the collapse throughout the first hours. The flow of information (and mis-information) is apparently the same there as it is in the US– which really emphasizes the need for emergency informatics.

Prof. Stefan Wrobel attended and my hats off to him and Thomas for an amazing place! It’s a lovely combination of old (a castle) and new (the buildings and especially the robotics high bay lab) with an artistic and eco sensibility (“green” roofs).

So looking at the cleared site, similar to the WTC site, it is hard to tell that two people lost their lives there, that a physical connection to the past was lost as well. But given that Cologne appears in some ways defines itself by the bombings from WWII, I suspect every resident can feel the tortured earth and have added it to their long memories.