Tornadoes and mudslides

The horrific tornadoes in Missouri and the mudslide at the Malaysia orphanage are very sad. The events were a stark reminder of the lessons learned at the annual Summer Institute on emergency informatics hosted last weekend by Texas A&M at TEEX’s Disaster City and EOTC facility May 19-21.

Missouri illustrates that it’s both response and recovery. The life-saving response activities usually can (and due to the immediacy of the injuries have to) be managed by the local and regional groups, but the less obvious challenge is how to get the community rebuilt. Can aerial vehicles do more than help with response allocation but also speed insurance and small business claims? Can marine vehicles help find or clear debris? Can robots help with victim management, such as the work being done by the US Army TATRIC? Of course, it’s all moot if the responders don’t have these assets or can’t effectively distribute, visualize, and use the information… there’s a missing information infrastructure.

The mudslide illustrates the need to be able to “see” into an access denied area- which we call remote assessment or perception at a distance. Mudslides are always difficult due to low rate of survival of direct contact as the mud displaces all oxygen and the mud is particularly hard on a ground robot as we learned at the LaConchita deployment in 2005.  If there is a void, it’s a small one and it’s imperative to reach the survivor before their air is gone. Progress in ground penetrating radar remains slow but new advances such as Dan Goldman’s sandworm robot may make it possible to quickly find voids. Of course that means both advances in the technology but also acquisitions so that teams have the robots and don’t lose a day or more getting them in.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and the families and the loss of the orphanage in Malaysia is doubly sad.

Mexico Mine Disaster and Robots

Juan Rojas caught the mine disaster in Mexico– a coal mine and methane-related explosion. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which owns the only mine-permissible robot in the world, has been in contact with the embassy. It is not a good fit for their Wolverine-variant robot, as the miners were in a small area, crews were able to get in and recover some victims but are blocked by rubble (which would also block the golf cart robot).

Our hearts go out to the victims, the injured (the 15 year boy- the age of my son- who lost both arms), and the families- and it is sad that robots could not help.

Tornadoes and robots

I’m getting asked about why aren’t robots being used in Alabama, below is an informal description of the utility of air, land, and sea vehicles for these situations. Our hearts go out to the families- having seen 400 miles of this type of devastation we know that every square inch is a person’s life or livelihood.

Aerial vehicles are probably the most useful in these situations. Micro fixed wing UAVs that responders can literally throw to launch can quickly give the respond team a view of the situation and allows them to control what they are looking at. Medium resolution but on-demand with immediate viewing and feedback (“no– over there”) is  superior for immediate operations to getting super high resolution images with almost everything you wanted to see a couple of hours after you asked for it.  The responders and other decision makers need different resolutions of data and at different times.

Ground robots are less useful– the rubble isn’t particularly deep- remember, in general the sweet spot for a rescue robot is to penetrate further than 20 feet. Plus it’s the houses and non-engineered structures that get wiped out, so the density and style of collapse is different from the World Trade Center, parking garage collapses (e.g., Berkman Plaza II in Jacksonville or the Hackensack NJ apartment building), and building collapses (e.g., Cologne Germany Archives Building) where robots have been used by CRASAR and New Jersey Task Force 1.

Also, just a reminder to people thinking about IED “Hurt Locker” robots, in these situations you are often standing on the top of the rubble/roof and trying to work down into the rubble. So you want very small robots on a tether/belay to wiggle in and find voids. Mark Micire’s analysis of the use of tethered robots at the WTC for his Masters showed that tethers actually help the operators get the robot through the rubble in these vertical descents.

Canines give a great indication is someone is buried and a search camera (camera on a pole) is a great one-two high tech/low tech combination and search teams are incredibly fast. Rescue robots make sense where they do things that people and dogs can’t do or can do significantly faster.

Marine vehicles can help with victim and economic recovery- lots of things get pushed into ponds and lakes- but this is usually of interest later after the initial rescue phase.