Archive for September, 2016

The Legacy of 9/11 for Disaster Robotics

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I’ll be speaking at the Smithsonian Museum of American History today as part of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 event. 9/11 was the first reported use of robots for search and rescue and created a legacy that continues to grow for both disaster response and for science and technology. The robots were successful by any standard for rating search and rescue tools- improved performance over existing tools, frequency of use, and acceptance by professionals. They didn’t find any survivors, but neither did anyone else as there were sadly no survivors to find.
I will never forget my time at the World Trade Center as a responder, a scientist, or as a person. The infinite sadness of such an event still haunts me. The Seamus Heaney poem I read in the NYT and quoted in my IAAI talk:
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
I believe the many members of the CRASAR team at the World Trade Center and since have kept the memories and have enabled a pure change- as witnessed by the use of robots at at least 50 disasters worldwide. While the robots are a very small story among the amazing stories of loss and triumph, I am proud to tell the story and add to the history of how 9/11  has made waves and ripples in history.

Legacy for Disaster Robotics

9/11 was an existence proof that small robots could be of significant use searching in rubble, reaching places that people and dogs could not, and penetrating two to three times farther than cameras on poles, which were the nearest similar tool. Large heavy robots had been developed for bomb squads but they were too big and heavy to be used in rubble, as seen at the Oklahoma City bombing. Red Whitaker at CMU had built even larger and heavier robots for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents for the recovery operations, not for immediate search and rescue.


Small robots, ranging in size from a shoe box to a carry-on suitcase, that could be carried in one or two backpacks, had been under development by the pipeline and sewer inspection industry and the DARPA Tactical Mobile Robots program directed by John Blitch, the founding director of CRASAR.  If you look at the DARPA TMR logo you see that there is the “urban terrain” of cities but also a rubble pile, because John was thinking of dual use. He had been at the Oklahoma City bombing and had changed his MS thesis topics to robots for disasters (I was his co-advisor).


The robots were used starting shortly after midnight on 9/12 through 9/21 for search and rescue by FDNY, INTF1, OHTF1, PATF1,  and VATF1 and then again from 9/23 through 10/2 for recovery operations (structural inspection of the slurry wall) by the NY Department of Design and Construction when the last robot on site wore out.


By my count, robots have been used in 49 disasters since then in 17 countries. 24 of those disasters used UGVs- with the majority using the robot models from 9/11: Inuktuns (ex. mine disasters, building collapses), Packbots (ex. Christchurch for searching the cathedral, Fukushima Daiichi), and Talons (ex. Fukushima Daiichi). See Disaster Robotics for more details.

Legacy for Robotics

9/11 created a legacy for robotics in two ways. Search and rescue is often cited as a motivation for new advances in robotics; if you’re a doctor, you often say you want to solve cancer, if you’re a roboticist you often say you want to help with search and rescue.
One is that it created a new subfield of robotics. The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, the largest and most prestigious professional organization devoted to robotics, has a technical committee on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics with an annual international symposium that started in 2002 (I was a co-founder of the TC and symposium). Both the European Union and Japan are investing heavily in small disaster robots- including sensors and user interfaces- with multiple projects being funded at the $20M to $35M range (the US doesn’t have dedicated programs for funding robotics projects at that level). The SSRR field now includes UAVs, UMVs, and many innovations in ground robots that can crawl and burrow into rubble.


9/11 also uncovered technical challenges that the R&D community is still struggling with. Probably the most significant discovery was that remote presence, or teleoperation, is actually the preferred mode of control for almost every response task- even with UAVs and UMVs.  Because the time pressure is so great and because disasters always have a surprise, the responders want to see in real-time what the robot is seeing and being able to opportunistically change up the plan (“wait— what’s that? Let’s look over there..”). Up until 9/11, researchers and developers had assumed that all robots should be taskable agents- you would tell it what to do, it would go off and do it, and then come back- and remote presence was just because we hadn’t created autonomous programs. Now there is the realization that many applications, not just search and rescue, require the human and robot to work together in a joint cognitive system to get the job done.


The second most significant discovery is what Jenny Burke would later describe in her PhD thesis as that 2 heads are 9 times better than 1. Up until 9/11, researchers and developers had assumed that 1 person could operate a robot successfully and thus the real challenge was for 1 person to drive 2 or more robots. We had had signs prior to 9/11 that 1 person couldn’t drive a robot in rubble and look at the same time-as one of my grad students who later went with us to 9/11, Jenn Casper, documented, they could do it but they could literally roll past a victim in front of the robot (we started seeing this in exercises with FLTF3 in buildings that were being demolished). The cognitive challenges of thinking like a ferret or meerkat (the size of the robot) were bigger than anyone had expected and then rubble is deconstructed and hard to mentally sort out. 2 heads makes sense in a way- if you are in a new town driving around in traffic and looking for a particular address you’ve never been to, it helps to have a passenger in the car who is looking too.