Researchers and Responders to Jointly Develop UAV Visual Common Ground

Researchers and responders from The Texas A&M University System have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a visual “common ground” between operators and responders who use micro and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for search and rescue.

Following principles in how people know what other people are talking about in conversations, visual common ground will allow responders to easily express where they want the UAV to fly and what angle to examine collapsed structures using an iPad or other tablet. The responders would also be able to review imagery and video while the UAV continues its mission rather than wait for the UAV to land.

Response professionals from the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Disaster Preparedness and Response Division (DPR) will fly weekly at Disaster City® with researchers from the Texas Engineering Experiment Station’s (TEES) Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), speeding the development and refinement of the natural user interface.

Disaster City® is a 52-acre facility designed featuring full-scale collapsible structures that replicate community infrastructure. The site includes simulations of a strip mall, office building, industrial complex, assembly hall/theater, single-family dwelling, train derailments, three active rubble piles and a small lake.

The grant is the first direct partnering of emergency responders with university professors/researchers for UAV research. Bob McKee, DPR director and agency chief for Texas Task Force 1, serves as a principal investigator with Dr. Robin Murphy, Texas A&M University professor and CRASAR director. The partnership leverages the capabilities of top academic researchers and the preparedness and response expertise of TEEX, all existing within the A&M System.

“Being able to work directly and routinely with responders under conditions as near to a real disaster as one can get will allow the research to progress faster. This could only happen at Texas A&M,” Murphy said. “Normally we’d have to try to condense a year of work into one week of trials, and if something went wrong we’d have to wait months for another opportunity for responders or a demolished building to become available.”

McKee said, “TEEX has been actively involved in efforts to develop and adapt robots for search and rescue applications. Though working with the National Institute for Standards and Technology project to develop standard test methods for emergency response robots to collaborating with scientific researchers and commercial developers at our unique Disaster City® facility, we’re hoping to someday use small UAVs and other unmanned systems to help save lives.”
The grant will help enable emergency responders to take advantage of small “personal” UAVs being developed for the U.S. Department of Defense. Urban search and rescue operations can be more challenging than military peacekeeping operations as they can require assessment and analysis of damaged structures, hazardous areas, and other unique situations.


The idea for creating shared displays is a result of over a decade of research on rescue robotics by Murphy, who was recently named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company magazine. She has led UAV deployments at numerous disasters starting with Hurricane Katrina. Her work with Dr. Jenny Burke (a former graduate student currently with Boeing), based on CRASAR experiences with ground robots at the World Trade Center, showed that search and rescue specialists were nine times more effective if two responders—not one—worked together using a shared visual display.

The team expects to have an open source tablet interface for AirRobot and Dragan UAVs within 24 months that leads to a significant, measurable improvement in team performance as well as high user acceptance.


Contact for TEEX: Brian Blake (O) 979-458-6837 (C) 979-324-8995

Contact for TEES: Pam Green (O) 979-845-5510 (C) 979-574-4138

Frequently Asked Questions about Roboticists Without Borders

There has been significant interest in CRASAR’s Roboticists Without Borders program from potential members and from agencies. I’ve created a FAQ to the most commonly asked questions and added it to the RWB webpage. I’ll reproduce it here to make it easy to see in one place. If you have more questions, please ask!

Q. Doesn’t RWB compete with companies who make robots or undermine their market?

No! The point is that every response and recovery agency should have robots- but they don’t. RWB facilitates humanitarian use of robots, but also helps promotes robots and encourages adoption. Do the Doctors Without Borders compete with local doctors? No, because there aren’t any doctors where they go. Should there have been more doctors there? Absolutely. Same idea with robots.

Q. Who can join?

Anyone from anywhere can join to contribute equipment, expertise, or donations (or any combination!) using the standard membership form.

Agencies or other potential “users” can create a memorandum of understanding, add CRASAR to their vendor list, or otherwise set up a partnership as governed by their rules- there is no standard form because each agency is different.

Q. How much does it cost to join?

Nothing. But you do have to pay your way each year to a training event and make sure your robot has completed the applicable NIST standards.

Q. If my company or university joins, how often can we expect to go to disasters?

It depends. There is no guarantee that your technology or expertise will be called upon or that you will available if it is. There were 8 deployments of robots in 2010 to 7 incidents and many types of robots were used so we expect the trend to accelerate.

Q. Can my agency or institution create agreements with CRASAR in advance?

Yes, please. When CRASAR was at the University of South Florida, there was a memorandum of understanding with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue that allows CRASAR to be requested and reimbursed as part of the state response system.

Q. How is RWB funded?

RWB is funded by donations, by research grants to CRASAR (when applicable), research overhead from grants. A deployment will either draw from those reserves or be reimbursed by the requesting agency. While we clearly prefer to be reimbursed, CRASAR can generally cover travel costs so that agencies that are skeptical of robots have no financial disincentive to issue an invitation.

Because robots are new and disasters are possibly the most challenging application for robots, many of our members have grants that allow them to go to disasters- the way earthquake engineers  do. Plus the National Science Foundation has Rapid Response Research grants that we can apply for. CRASAR has been generally successful in getting these grants- one was for using UAVs to assess damage to buildings from Hurricane Katrina and the human-robot interaction model that resulted was used by the UAV team at Fukushima.

Q. What is the relationship between CRASAR and RWB?

CRASAR is the center that is responsible for RWB. CRASAR does more than RWB but RWB is a major activity.

Q. CRASAR has an equipment cache, does that mean those robots are the best or will be used first for a disaster?

CRASAR maintains a cache of robots for research that can also be used for deployments. Because these robots must support research, which not all commercial systems do, AND because every disaster is different, the CRASAR cache does not necessarily represent the best match for every incident. It is hoped that the RWB membership will have the best match.

Q. Who/how decides what RWB equipment or members participate in a disaster?

Technically, the buck stops with the director. But generally as soon as a disaster happens, the land, aerial, and marine leads will begin assessing the needs and making recommendations and contacting members to see what they think and what’s available and it generally converges quickly to a consensus. The CRASAR Advisory Board reviews the recommended deployment plan.

Q. Can my agency request RWB participation in an incident (smaller than a disaster) ?

Yes. Members typically welcome the opportunity to work directly with users and get their feedback.

Q. Can my agency request RWB participation in an exercise?

Yes, please! CRASAR offers 2- and 4-hour hands-on awareness classes and a 10 hour operator class to introduce groups to rescue robotics. We will often provide a class and robots at no expense in return for being able to collect data from the responders as they use the robots in their exercise. We’ve trained over 400 responders and emergency managers to date.

IRS-CRASAR team finalist for Best Paper SSRR 2011

The IRS-CRASAR paper on our April deployment to Japan was a finalist for best paper at the IEEE Safety Security Rescue Robot conference, which met this week in Kyoto. The work by the Japanese team that produced the QUINCE robot used at Fukushima deservedly won- but it was a great honor to be a finalist!  The paper is Use of Remotely Operated Marine Vehicles at Minamisanriku and Rikuzentakata Japan for Disaster Recovery by R. Murphy, K. Dreger, S. Newsome, J. Rodocker, E. Steimle. T. Kimura, K. Makabe, F. Matsuno, S.Tadokoro, and K. Kon. Congratulations all! The paper should be available from download from IEEE Xplore shortly.

1 robot: 80,000 m2 covered and 104 objects found at 32 locations in 4 days

We are at Narita, getting ready to head home! In four days the team was in the field in Minami Sanriku with our IRS colleagues, the SeaBotix SARbot surveyed 32 locations and covered 80,000 m2 of Shizugawa Bay in just over 6 hours of time in the water, finding 104 objects such as cars, a lighthouse, and nets. And it wasn’t just the robot, we got to work through the data-to-decision process with GeoSuites and GIS systems… I’ll post video and lessons learned as soon as I can.

Minami Sanriku Cho: Day 1 summary

While the Turkey earthquake response forges on, the team in Japan continues to work. We just finished Day 2, but here is a video summary.  A lot of the shots are from Richard Smith, our GIS expert (great job!) The SeaBotix SARbot and the Lynn image enhancement software is performing wonderfully! [youtube][/youtube]

In Japan but reaching out to Turkey…

We got word about the Turkey earthquake from our medical lead, Eric Rasmussen,  while we were on the water deploying ROVs and an AUV in Minami Sanriku Cho today. The CNN site is sketchy but it looks like very challenging conditions- beside getting help to the site, the types of houses and the weather are tough on searching, on victims in the cold, and on rescuers.

The International Rescue Systems Institute is looking at the availability of their caterpillar-like Active Scope Camera, the best robot I know of for penetrating extremely narrow voids. Small UAVs may be of use in understanding the situation and the civil engineering. I can’t tell from the news about marine vehicles– as one of the technologists here in Japan with me said: “I had no idea so much infrastructure is related to water!”

Today, the city of Minami Sanriku is celebrating the opening of their port after the tsunami– a great day and great progress in recovery. But a sad day for Turkey. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and the responders.

In Minamisanriku-Cho, gearing up for first mission

It is dawn here at Minamisanriku and from my hotel room, I can see streaks of orange over the New Port, the site we first searched and cleared in April. The tendrils of fog driftly past the small islands dotting Shizugawa Bay. We start checking our gear in another hour before breakfast and depart to an inlet on the northern border of the bay. There we will meet with city officials and fishermen who have asked us to find underwater debris, map it, and attach a float to it so that it can be removed.


We have brought two robots for the mission: a OceanServer autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that looks like a small yellow torpedo. It carries side scan sonar and will map out the area of the bay rapidly, probably within a hour. That will let us know where debris or possible debris is, which will then use the SARbot from SeaBotix from a boat to investigate. With its gripper, we should be able to attach a float to the underwater debris to mark it for easy identification for later removal. If not, IRS has two divers with us who will do it manual. Meanwhile the AUV will move to a new location and we will work in sequence: get “big picture” with AUV,  perform “little” actions with the tethered ROV.


But just having robots isn’t the same as getting the information to the right people at the right time- which is also called the “data-to-decision” problem. We will be integrating the data from the two robots using the General Dynamics GeoSuites software package- which is a civilian version of the command and control software used by the military. This will help us, the robot team keep up with the two groups deploying the AUV and ROV in different areas at the same time AND allow tactical responders such as Kenichi Makabe and his team of fire fighters who will be joining us  to see the fused and geolocated incoming data. GeoSuites will let multiple users have a global visual “common ground” that lets different groups get the view of the enterprise that they need, allowing me to see what everyone is doing, while letting officials start planning for removal and our GIS experts learn and start generating models of where more debris will be found.

On Way to Japan: IRS-CRASAR return to Minamisanriku-cho

We are flying out today, bringing back the SeaBotix SARbot and adding in an Oceanserver autonomous underwater vehicle, plus the EDGE network is sending GeoSuites to explore distributing the data and we have a  GIS expert from TAMU-CC.

We’ll be returning to Minamisanriku-cho, one of the two cities we visited in April. The mission that our colleagues at the International Rescue Systems Institute is quite different- we are tasked to find and clear debris in the surrounding bay. We plan to use the OceanServer AUV to quickly map portions of the bay, then use the ROV to attach a float and post it on the map and distribute it through GeoSuites. However, as Rick Smith, our GIS expert says, there’s more to cartography than putting red pins on a map- we are hoping to predict where other debris will be. GeoSuites is the civilian version of TIGR, the common operating picture software used by the US military– Brian Slaughter will be managing that. Eric Steimle (AEOS) is our lead again and Jesse is on the SARbot again.  YSI/Nanotech,  the OceanServer distributor in Japan, will meet the IRS-CRASAR team there.

Wish us well– the slow pace of recovery in Minamisanriku was reported on by the New Times here.  We are honored to join our Japanese colleagues at IRS in participatory research: learning while doing.