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Top 5 Surprises in Unmanned Systems for Mudslides

CRASAR's Sam Stover and Robin Murphy at 2005 La Conchita, California, mudslides

CRASAR’s Sam Stover and Robin Murphy at 2005 La Conchita, California, mudslides

I’ve been getting questions about the use of unmanned systems for the recent horrific Montecito mudslides, so let me extend my earlier tweet, both in terms of thoughts and prayers to the victims and also the technical details. It does not appear that small UAS are being used by the formal responders for Montecito.

  1. Unmanned systems- ground and aerial- have been used since 2005 and there are opportunities for marine systems as well. Unmanned systems have been used at least three times in the United States for landslides, two by CRASAR teams. UGVs were used for the 2005 La Conchita, California mudslide (which was the first ever use of an unmanned system for a mudslide), while UAS were used for the 2014 Oso, Washington, and Collbran, Colorado, mudslides. Both fixed and rotorcraft UAS were used at Oso and Collbran.At Oso, it would have nice to have had an autonomous marine vehicle with sonar to map the underwater portions. See  this paper  on the 2005 La Conchita and blog mudslide and  2014 Oso mudslide plus more lessons learned are in Disaster Robotics and in our older blogs. Plus see video Oso composite of small UAS flights 
  2. The primary use for UAS has been for reconnaissance and mapping, not life safety. In the La Conceit mudslide, CRASAR worked with Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles City fire departments using shoe-boxed sized ground robots to try to get through basement voids and narrow windows in order to search collaterally damaged buildings for a missing family. Search dogs had given ambiguous indications but it was too dangerous to send in a human responder and the dogs couldn’t squeeze in. The robots weren’t used in the primary mudslide area because this type of mud had penetrated every house in its path leaving no pockets  and would require a burrowing robot such as the sand lizard styles being researched by Dan Goldman and Howie Choset. In the Collbran (Deputy Sheriff Ben Miller at Mesa County used their systems) and Oso mudslides (The Field Innovation Team/CRASAR team worked under the direction of Snohomish County), the UAS were used for gathering essential elements of information about the disaster area and assessing the situation. This includes determining the boundaries of the disaster area; access points to the disaster area; social, economic and political impacts (e.g., at Oso there were concerns about additional property damage and impacts on salmon); geophysical information (e.g., topology and volume of debris); projecting impacts; and initial needs and damage assessment. The Montecito mudslides illustrate that another EEI, assessing the status of transportation systems— what roads and trails were still open to get responders in and civilians evacuated, is also important. The UAS at Oso and Collbran also allowed the incident commander to see where teams actually were and also ensure that unauthorized personnel weren’t entering the cordoned off area.
  3. A UAS platform that can perform only autonomous mapping is highly limited for the immediate response. Both Oso and Collbran had missions that required first person view/manual flight where experts could direct the UAS in real-time in order to better assess the situation. At Oso, the PrecisionHawk Lancaster was extremely valuable in rapidly mapping the disaster, but the responders also used the AR100B quadcopter to hover and stare over the water to estimate flow rate, locate personnel, determine progress on mitigation efforts, and generally get closer looks at objects and activities that they didn’t know that needed to look at until they saw it from the air.
  4. The biggest unanticipated UAS challenge has been flying mapping missions in complex terrain, not endurance or distance. While having a UAS with the endurance and capability to cover an entire mountain from a single launch point is important, the limitations (and LOS regulations) are well-understood by the UAS operators. The unexpected problem was the complexity of the terrain. The autonomous mapping software programs assumed a flat earth, suitable for agricultural mapping but the areas of interest were in the “toe” of a mountain and a plain. The elevation of the landscape varied. In addition, the landscape had forests with some trees higher than others. This presented challenges for autonomous mapping, especially as it was desired to fly the UAS as low as practical in order to get the high resolution imagery.  The operators had to create “stair steps” missions for fixed-wings and vertical slices for quadcopters. In Oso, the CRASAR team used a quadcopter to fly to the tallest tree in a “patch” and get the actual height so that the fixed-wing could be programmed to stay well above that height. The advances in obstacle avoidance by DJI would have been very helpful.
  5. Protecting personal identifying information (PII) and privacy has been the biggest barrier in deployment. Data management and chain of custody has long been a requirement of unmanned systems use by formal response agencies. The Oso mudslides illustrated how touchy PII and privacy can be. At the Oso Mudslides, UAS operations were suddenly cancelled due to concerns over victim privacy; this was later resolved when the incident command staff was able to clarify that the UAS would be flying over the “toe” of the mudslide and river and not where victims were being recovered.  Ironically, the FIT/CRASAR team had talked to all the local property owners to assure them that the UAVs would not be flying over their land and any recorded imagery would belong to the county and released only with their permission.

If you have documentation on other deployments of unmanned systems to landslides, please send me the info and I’ll send you a CRASAR patch!

Emergency Management Magazine…

There’s nothing like appearing on the home page of Emergency Management Magazine to trigger a “holy cow, I haven’t been keeping up the blog!” It’s been hugely busy here between working with students colleagues, and industry partners on

  • creating use cases for robots for Ebola and other infectious diseases with a grant from the National Science Foundation (Eric Rasmussen, MD FACP,  and our medical director for Roboticists Without Borders is the co-PI),
  • prepping UAVs for an upcoming wilderness search and rescue exercise with Brazos Valley Search and Rescue (big shout out to the FAA and CSA for their help!),
  • prepping for the Robot Petting Zoo we are doing with the Field Innovation Team at SXSW to show off real robots used in real disasters,
  • getting to work with Prof. Howie Choset at CMU and Prof. Dan Goldman at Georgia Tech on burrowing robots through a National Robotics Initiative grant from NSF, and
  • teaching an class overload (add case studies of robots at disasters to undergrad robotics as part of my Faculty Fellow for Innovation in teaching award, plus the AggiE Challenge advised by Profs. Dylan Shell, Craig Marianno, and myself on creating ground and water robots to detect radiation )

So things are happening!  Thank you for your donations that make it possible to bring robots to new venues such as wilderness search and rescue and public education events like the Robot Petting Zoo. Most of what we do is based on donations, so please donate here!


Snake Bots to the Rescue

There have been many nature-inspired gadgets and devices. This method is called biomimicry or biomimemtics. You have products like shark skin which inspired swim suits and submarine coatings; Velcro, the hook and loop fastener that was inspired by plant burrs that stick to dog hair and a new adhesive inspired by Geckos. Now, snakes have inspired the creation of a robot that will mimic its actions and can move through tiny holes.

It is said that the snake robot has been in use since 2008, but these were early prototypes, since which many alterations have been made in different models. The most famous is Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) research and snake bot models. Georgia Tech University students have also developed search and rescue snake robots in 2012.

Recently researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech headed to Zoo Atlanta, to observe rattlesnakes. After over 50 trials, these snake movements were measured and tracked through cameras. “The snakes tended to increase the amount of body contact with the surface at any instant in time when they were sidewinding up the slope and the incline angle increased,” said Daniel Goldman, co-author of the study and an associate professor of biomechanics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

These researchers also got in touch with Howie Choset, a professor at The Robotics Institute at CMU. Prof Howie has been working on developing limbless snake bots that can move through small spaces. The professor said these robotic sidewinding abilities could come in handy in archaeological sites. For instance, the robots could be used to explore the insides of pyramids or tombs. They could also help in search and rescue missions, as they are capable of moving in small and cramped spaces.

Check out more information at

Snake Robots: Slithering Machines Could Help Search & Rescue Missions

Meet the sidewinder rattlesnake robot! This motorized serpent can actually move across sandy surfaces, both flat and inclined, an exploit that has escaped engineers so far.

Recently, the team of Georgia tech researchers has portrayed for the first time how sidewinder rattlesnakes also known as Crotalus Cerastes, move across a challenging sandy mound. The study is published in the ‘Science’ journal.

“We observed snakes on an artificial mound, finding that the snakes often flatten themselves on the steeper slopes to increase their contact with the sand,” researchers stated. Dr. Daniel Goldman, senior author, who runs a biomechanics lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told BBC, “The most striking thing for us was how nice these animals are as subjects, they lean to just sidewind on command.”

Check out more information at

Iran Earthquake: CRASAR monitoring but this type is hard for robots

Dr. Tetsu Kimura and member of our IRS-CRASAR expeditions is coming back from Robocup Rescue in Iran and has asked about CRASAR robots for the Iran earthquake. I am taking the liberty of sharing my reply:

The earthquake is awful and what another tragic loss of life.  I am a great admirer of Amir and his efforts. We’ve been watching the earthquake here– I don’t think the robots would be of much use but certainly would try to support a response. It is painful to see the loss of life.

The primary damage based on the media- which could be wrong- appears to be to mud and brick houses versus multi-story commercial buildings, if victims survive they are probably fairly shallow (less than 6m) and in voids surrounded by brick and mud has become sand– there are generally no voids from the surface to the survivor for the robot to penetrate. Dogs can readily detect the presence of a person and then it requires manpower for extraction. Existing techniques work well for depths of 6m.  Robots are slow compared to canines, and CRASAR deployment with FLTF-3 during Hurricane Charley and FLTF-3 deployment of ground robots at Hurricane Katrina showed that ground robots didn’t provide a cost/benefit for wide area search of urban residences. So unless it’s a multi-story building such as an apartment that has collapsed, current ground robots won’t make a difference and we recommend more canine teams.  In the future, something like Dan Goldman’s sandsnake robots on a large scale could help.

Landslides are also challenging for ground robots, as we saw at the La Conchita mudslides- as with the mud and brick residences you have nothing but dense dirt, not the void spaces seen in a commercial concrete structure.

The nuclear facility is another matter, of course, and the situation may call for ground and aerial inspection.

For the wide area search of residences, besides canine teams other technologies such as ground penetrating radar and better informatics to coordinate researchers and resources would be a huge potential contribution and why the Center for Emergency Informatics exists.

Finally, there is the large travel time as Satoshi noted for the Tanzania collapse, so we would arrive around 72 hours later, outside the probability of long-term survivors. The robots would add little to recovery of the critical infrastructure in this case.

Please let me know what you think. In the meantime our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the responders.

Terradynamics: Technique could help designers predict how legged robots will move on granular surfaces

Researcher Daniel Goldman, a professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is studying how animals move through granny surfaces, and trying to create a robot legs that can help a robot easily navigate through theses rough terrain environment. Here is the full article from Phys Org
Here is two more articles talking about terradynamics: Business Insider and Io9

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.

NZ Quake and Sandfish

Dan Goldman’s work in duplicating sandfish made it into Science News- a reminder of how biomimetic robots could make a real difference in disasters such as the New Zealand earthquake with its dense rubble. The responders continue to find survivors which is fantastic but are racing the clock. We wish we were there to help with more than our prayers- may all the survivors be found quickly, families reunited, and the recovery be quick!

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.