Colombia landslide: robots and landslides

CRASAR’s connection in China, Dr. Juan Rojas, saw this about the Bello, Colombia landslide. Our sympathy and prayers for the victims and their families.

Landslides are tough for robots. CRASAR’s Sam Stover and I assisted with the 2005 La Conchita, California, mudslide which is described here. The short version of what we learned was that the land or mud fluidizes and becomes like water, filling every possible gap. Voids are rare and it’s not a matter of a robot penetrating dense rubble, it’s a matter of being able to be an earthworm and burrow into solid dirt.  “Regular” robots can help search collateral damage but aren’t going to be much use for the buried portions.

BUT GREAT POSSIBILITIES! After my Gegenheimer Lecture at Georgia Tech last week, I met with Dr. Dan Goldman who is working on robotic versions of sand lizards which can burrow. This was the first realistic hope I’ve seen for a robot that could quickly penetrate the soil and perhaps find one of those few voids with trapped air (and survivors). Plus Dr. Carolina Chang got involved in rescue robotics after the landslides in her country, so with this kind of focus perhaps we can improve the odds in the future.

MSHA, CRASAR standing down

With the second explosion and an official declaration of the Pike River Mine explosion as a recovery operation, the New Zealand government has asked the MSHA team to stand down. The robot had arrived as LAX almost exactly as the press conference about the second explosion so Air New Zealand put us up at an airport hotel to see what the course of action would be. (Air New Zealand has been amazing- getting the V2 from Pittsburgh to LA, rebooking flights (like mine), and being extraordinarily friendly and helpful.) I wished we could have helped in a tangible way. And I wish there had been a happy ending– our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families on their tragedy and also the responders who must be devastated.

For me, it’s back home and trying to document the use of the robots so that we can learn for the future.

MSHA V2 robot going to New Zealand, CRASAR joining the team

It looks like from the internet news that it has been a busy day in New Zealand with two robots and a third being prepped. My hat’s off to the Kiwis for aggressively pursuing this technology. I know of only one other case- the Midas Gold Mine Nevada collapse- where more than one robot was deployed. And that was one at a time (the first robot from nearby Fallon NAS was too big and heavy for that type of void, so CRASAR was called in and we brought in an iRobot packbot and Inuktun/ASR Extreme VGTV from the US Navy SPAWAR small robot pool. The packbot was too big so we used the Extreme, so only 2 robots were used.). It sounds like that more than 1 robot is, or was, active at one time at Pike River, so that’s a record.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, under the direction of technology director Dr. Jeff Kravitz, is bringing the V2 (the Remotec Wolverine variant that is to the best of my knowledge the only mine permissible robot in the world) to New Zealand. I am currently waiting at LAX for them to arrive, as I’ve been invited to join their team. I can’t wait to “meet” the other robots (and responders). Jeff is a real unsung hero of rescue robotics, he has been involved with the most underground mine rescue robot deployments in the world. We’ve worked together since 2006, you can see him in this video about the rescue robot at the Crandall Canyon Utah mine disaster, and we are co-authors of a paper summarizing underground mine rescue robot technology and the nine deployments as of 2009.

I’m sure I speak for everyone that we’d be thrilled to arrive in New Zealand to discover that the 29 miners had been found alive and had been extricated; they remain in our prayers.

Pike River Mine robots fails

A sad day with the robot failing in New Zealand and no resolution on the missing miners. I got asked many times today by the NZ media about the ways a bomb squad robot could fail or fail being used as an underground mine rescue robot. Mobile robot technology is still primitive (most robots are not as sophisticated as they could be due to economic barriers) plus search and rescue is one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, domain.

I am afraid that we may be losing sight of while there are many ways for a robot to fail, a single success could save 29 lives.  And if not this time, we learn for the next- because there will always be a next time.

Our deepest, best wishes for the miners and their families and also the responders who are pushing the envelope to try to find the missing.

Pike River Coal Mine explosion in New Zealand

Peter Griffin of the Science Media Centre in New Zealand has just given us a heads up that rescuers will be attempting to deploy a robot in the search for the 29 missing miners from the Pike River coal mine explosion. Our prayers are with the miners, their families, and the responders and we hope for a happy ending like at Chile.


The video above is from the robot at the Crandall Canyon Utah coal mine collapse and pictures are in the media gallery. A paper summarizing a study CRASAR did for the US Mine Safety and Health Administration for all 3 types of mine robot rescue is here and give the prior deployments, advantages and limitations of robots for each. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration and its lead scientist, Dr. Jeffrey Kravitz, is the world leader in underground mine rescue deployments and CRASAR is proud to have assisted with two mine rescues. To date, there has been no known “live saves” of miners with a robot but we’re hoping this is a first.

Robot Revolution: Dean of Invention

Robin Murphy, Bob McKee, and CRASAR robots working at Disaster City will be featured this Friday, November 5, at 9pm CT (channel 103 GREEN on Suddenlink) on Planet Green’s Original Series Dean of Invention. This episode entitled “Robot Revolution” will focus on environmental challenges that must be met by robots because human beings are physically unable to meet them.

Dean of Invention is hosted by Dean Kamen, visionary inventor and creator of the first robot competition. Robin Murphy is the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University and the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. Bob McKee is the director of the Urban Search & Rescue division of the Texas Engineering Extension Service.

Chilean miners… update

It looks like the Chilean miners are close to be extricated! Great news and I wish I could be there, not only to cheer but also to learn more about how survivors communicate with “those above.” CRASAR was contacted about assisting with the search for the trapped miners, but the demands were even more extreme for a robot than at the Crandall Canyon, Utah, mine collapse so there was nothing workable. Fortunately the miners were found! Though with a long extrication time (months).

Cliff Nass, our partner at Stanford on the Survivor Buddy project, and I had always thought of victim management in terms of days, not weeks and months! We were hoping to actually go down to the rescue. We have been working on the topic of how trapped survivors can use social media communicate with responders and families and be less stressed for over 3 years. Cliff is a world expert in media– how people work with and through computers, television, radio, etc. – and so Cliff and I joined forces with funding from the National Science Foundation and Microsoft External Research to consider how trapped survivors, elders and shut-ins, etc. will use multi-media devices such as a robot ) that finds them or other media (ipods, tvs, videoconference). Dr. Cindy Bethel’s PhD thesis found that the way a robot is regularly used to investigate rubble and people is… well, creepy. Creepy to the point of causing measurable physiological stress.

Cliff and I offered our services to the Ministry through the National Science Foundation, though it sounded like the situation was well under control, and requested that we be allowed to collect data on how the miners are using media to communication, entertain themselves, etc., and what’s working/not working. For example, a news report said that the miners requested individual ipods but were denied so that they would stay together- that is certainly interesting to us, because it’s consistent with the miners trapped in the Beaconsfield mine and that everyone wants multi-media versus just talking to someone.  We wanted to see if we could get access to the “data stream” (or even make sure the data needed for social media research is collected), logbooks, or the response/support team- if only remotely as this data is vital to systems that would improve telemedicine or any situation where someone is isolated for long periods of time. Our focus on media (how) complements the psychological support to the miners and families (what and why)- which NASA helped advise them on.

We’ve just learned that after over a month of requests and processing, our request has been turned down. We’re trying to find avenues through local Chilean researchers (who have been terrific) and NASA to get access to the data through them– while there isn’t anything we can do for the miners, we believe there is valuable research and lessons to be learned for “the next time.”

Chile Mine Disaster, Trapped Victims, and Survivor Buddy

CRASAR was contacted shortly after the Chiliean mine collapse that left 33 miners unaccounted for. The situation was quite similar to the Crandall Canyon Utah mine disaster in 2007 that we assisted the Mine Safety and Health Administration on– however the major difference was that the inner diameter of the borehole was much smaller- on the order of 3.5 inches, whereas at Crandall Canyon we had closer to 9 inches. 9 inches is currently the smallest we can get robots that are waterproof and able to function when they land in the pile of mud from the drilling,such as the one built by Inuktun and operated by Pipe Eye International. As we worked to see if we could do better, the miners were miraculously found alive- so the search and rescue robot wasn’t needed.

But now the question is how to keep the trapped miners comfortable and unstressed as they wait for extraction. The has been a topic of research that we are conducting with Prof. Cliff Nass at Stanford University, a world leader in how people communicate through media (such as computers or robots), since 2007. We call the project “Survivor Buddy” – building a robot multi-media “head” that wasn’t creepy. We were originally funded by Microsoft (thanks!) and since 2009 by the National Science Foundation (thanks, too!). The original version of Survivor Buddy was cited by Popular Science as a “Best of 2009” and we have just completed a much lighter, more agile version seen in these YouTube clips here and here.

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We’ve requested permission to come to Chile and observe, now that things have settled down (they didn’t need MORE people on-site right after they found the miners). This is quite the opportunity to learn how trapped victims react… and perhaps some of the lessons Cliff and I and our great grad students (especially the newly graduated Dr. Victoria Groom) have learned can be of some help.