Archive for October, 2013

Nature’s Fury: CRASAR is Helping Coordinate Rescue Roboticists for the FIRST Lego League Competition

The amazing FIRST Robotics Competition Lego League is on disasters this year! Over a dozen rescue roboticists are joining me in providing expert interviews and robotics advice to the middle schoolers participating internationally. CRASAR is also working the Dr. Michael Johnson of the Center for Emergency Informatics to provide awards and educational materials for teachers and parents. CRASAR will be at the DARPA Robotics Challenge with robots used at disasters and experts for the kids to see and interact with. More to come!

Death toll rises after earthquake hits the Philippines

The death toll from the magnitude-7.1 earthquake in the central Philippines rose to 144 on Wednesday, authorities said. This earthquake caused massive damage, with still 20 people missing, and authorities are still searching for them, and anyone else who may be trapped in collapsed buildings.
Here is a link to the article at CNN.

Ridge Theatre demolition site search finds nobody

Vancouver firefighters say a search has concluded nobody was trapped in the rubble of the old Ridge Theatre on Arbutus Street near 16th Avenue on Wednesday morning.

The search was sparked after parts of the building were knocked down before crews checked to make sure if squatters, who had been suspected of using the building at night, had cleared out this morning.

Firefighters say they found no evidence anyone was trapped in the rubble after using a thermal imaging camera, a search and rescue dog, and a Vancouver Police Department robot to search the site.

The full article is at CBC.

Winners of the euRathlon 2013 land robotics competition announced!

euRathlon provides real-world robotics challenges for outdoor robots in demanding scenarios. This year 14 teams qualified to complete. The 5 day event was comprised of different challenges:
Day one was “Mobile manipulation for handling hazardous material.”
Day two was “Reconnaissance and surveillance in urban structures.”
Day three was “Search and rescue in a smoke-filled underground structure.”
Day four was “Autonomous Navigation.”
Day five visitors saw demonstrations of robots performing different tasks.
Also on the last day winners of the four euRathlon 2013 scenarios were unveiled at the award ceremony in Salinenplatz, in Berchtesgaden.
This event was a great competition and helped farther the areas of search and rescue robotics.

Here is a link to the recaps of all the days at Robohub.

SARbot: Britain’s first underwater rescue charity

The SARbot team, is a team that uses ROV underwater robots that can identify a human body, and can recover it to the surface.
Here is the article with a video at The Telegraph.

About Unmanned Aerial Systems and the controversy over not using them at the Colorado Floods

The tone and content of the discussion of the lack of use of UAVs in the Colorado flooding among the community bothers me. I have flown small UAVs (or UAS depending on what agency is involved) at Hurricane Katrina and Wilma and have assisted with the UAV flights at Fukushima. I have also been turned down by the FAA for emergency COAs. I was involved in discussions to use UAVs at the Moore, Oklahoma, and the decision not to use them there.

So I feel I have unique perspective from both sides of the coin.

During a disaster, a UAS requires an emergency COA from the FAA, not FEMA. An agency or responsible party has to want to use the UAS, be it FEMA, a task force, or a sheriff before the FAA considers the request. If I as director of CRASAR ask the FAA, they would laugh at me; instead I make the request with the agency that CRASAR is working for (we don’t self-deploy which is illegal and unethical). The FAA can turn around an emergency COA in 30 minutes if the requestor can show that the UAS has an existing COA, can specify where it will fly, and show need.

Manned and unmanned aircraft are currently not allowed to operate over the same area at the same time, even though they may be at different altitudes. So if an agency wants to fly manned vehicles, such as CAP or manned helicopters trying to airlift people out, they have to decide if they want to stop those operations temporarily to let unmanned systems in. And remember, since communications with the air traffic controllers who are working the disaster and the actual pilots is spotty, there has to be a bit latency/down time to get the word out. So this could shut manned operations down in an area for quite a while.  The current solution is to partition the space, e.g., “this canyon on Thursday will be just for unmanned systems.”  Within that area and time frame, responders can use a small UAS on demand- though there’s always a provision to land immediately if an manned system enters the airspace for some reason.

However, having to plan to this level of detail, combined with the latency, will drive an agency such as FEMA to say it’s just not worth the time and effort- the cost-benefit to the _larger_ operations isn’t there. The cost of the deployment has never been an issue, free or not- it just may not be useful.  That’s what happened at Moore. There were manned assets meeting at least the minimum needs of the responders. UAS may have provided better info, cheaper (also free in that case) but it’s a hard sell to shut down something that’s working during a disaster to use something new. The FAA was in no way a problem or obstacle, it was a FEMA decision that it wasn’t worth it. And I can understand that decision.

I think most people don’t understand why an area has to be “sanitized” of manned vehicles for a small UAS to be used at altitudes significantly lower than a manned aircraft would fly at. One reason is that the manned aircraft may indeed be flying very low, like a helicopter lower a collar to lift a person out of flood waters. That is extremely dangerous-no-room-for-surprises-or-there’s-a-crash-and-everyone-dies operation.  So if tactical rescue is a possibility, you don’t want anything even nearby that could cause a problem.

I also think that the hobbyist versus public aircraft issue is poorly understood. Due to the quirk of the 1960s when dad (I never saw a mom on these outings) would take the kids, a picnic lunch, and the dog to a field to fly a RC plane, hobbyist got special regulations. Fast forward 50 years and these regulations are letting untrained people fly over crowds with open rotor ‘copters that have not been in any realistic way been tested. Yep, that loophole needs to be closed in an appropriate way. However, if the platform isn’t owned by a hobbyist, it falls under FAA regulations that require a COA. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you’ve been watching the news where ‘copters are injuring people.

But it doesn’t matter who owns what for a disaster because that airspace is totally cordoned off and hobbyist rules don’t apply. You aren’t allowed to just decide to fly your quad rotor or RC plane to help, because you are messing with the response. A manned system has to hightail it out of the area, land, and report what happened if it seems something that isn’t supposed to be in its area. So even if it seems like a good idea, the risk of interrupting a very important life-saving mission that you (or your police friend) knew nothing about is unacceptable. There’s a low risk but a high cost of failure if you interrupt the response. Self-deploying is bad, bad, bad.

Is the current system non-optimal? Definitely! Am I a happy camper? Not particularly. Do I understand why an agency might just say no? Yep. But I urge everyone to be aware of the rules and play by them. I don’t want to be trapped in a flood with a basket being lowered down to me and then the helicopter waves off, leaving me there for hours.