All posts by Dr. Robin Murphy

About the author:

avatar I am a founder of the field of rescue robotics; my personal goal is to enable emergency responders to routinely save lives through physically situated artificial intelligence (robots, sensor networks, etc.)

Robot boats as swift water rescuers, not just for critical infrastructure and restoration/recovery operations anymore!

EMILY at swift water exercise in Texas

EMILY at swift water exercise in Texas

Grant Wilde and Gino Chacon observed the EMILY rescue boat, a new concept in disaster robotics. I have followed Tony Mulligan and his work with EMILY since 2012 and EMILY is really gaining acceptance. He demoed the boat this week during a swift water exercise (which our partners Austin Fire Department participated in- thanks Coitt for the directions!) The robot acts as a barrel-shaped life ring. An operator teleoperates EMILY to a victim in the water and the victim grabs it. The operator then uses the tether to pull EMILY and her cargo to safety.

Creator Tony Mulligan assembling EMILY

Creator Tony Mulligan assembling EMILY

We’ve been pinged many times by fire rescue teams about swift water rescue- though about the use of UAVs. Swift water has many challenges, one of which is that the rescue crew in their boat is at risk for being struck by debris speeding into them. The idea was the UAV could act as a spotter and help coordinate the safety of responders and victims alike. EMILY bypasses some of the challenge by eliminating the responder.
Grant and Gino are working a slightly smaller robot boat for shallow littoral areas, definitely not swift water, for radiation sampling for treaty verification, identifying flood vulnerable areas (with the Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center), and general environmental sampling. Some nuclear power plants or towns can be readily accessed by creeks even if roads are out. Dr. Josh Peschel, a former PhD student now at University of Illinois, is working with these marine platforms to better understand water management.
EMILY assembled and ready to go

EMILY assembled and ready to go

Gino filming EMILY

Gino filming EMILY

Update: Flooding disasters continue to mount casualties and challenge response efforts

We are working with our partner the Lone Star Unmanned Aerial System Center, one of the 6 FAA test centers, to help support the flooding response and recovery efforts for the Texas floods. The floods are a sad example of how flooding costs the U.S. more than 80 lives and $8 billion in damages each year. And that excludes storm surge from hurricanes.

Technology based solutions have advanced to where employing robotic assisted solutions can aide in crisis assessments by federal, state and local officials and emergency workers. Yet more data adds another layer of complexity and extra coordination of robot assisted efforts.

Accurate ground and aerial surveys can help decision makers choose where to deploy limited resources in the best way. By quickly identifying survivors, any follow on threats from the natural disaster, collecting measurements of debris fields, volume of water flows or similar data can be provided without endangering the emergency responders.

Water gone wild and what the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) is working to do:

Texas A&M’s Center for Emergency Informatics (CEI) continues its two-year study of information technologies, including unmanned systems, in response to floods. The CEI brings together practitioners, academics, and industry experts to converge and test their knowledge hardware and software to respond to an array of water borne disasters.

CEI as the host for the Summer Institute on Flooding, slated for June 16-18, will set the stage for testing ideas, marry technologies and coordinate decision makers in real-time flood based scenarios

From the 2014 summer institute 42 representatives from 12 states tapping 14 agencies, 14 universities, and eight businesses were able to judge what information technology was mature enough, or which needs more development to assist with flooding response.

This year’s summer institute will include three exercises, each representing the key problem missions identified by the participating agencies:

  • Swift water rescue – a scenario has been developed where suddenly rising waters cut off helping responders to rescue people. Responders from Texas Task Force 1 using the characteristics of a campground flooding will be offered realistic challenges. The TEEX designed exercises focus on real missions rather than around technologies.
  • Life-saving response and immediate mitigation: identify best ways to assess where’s the flood, who is at risk?
  • Restoration and recovery- exercise decision making for resource allocation to restore roads, electricity, sewage, etc. And engaging insurance companies to conduct property damage assessment and projections of debris generation estimation to manage post flooding problems with decay, vermin and disease.

The growth of small UAVs and flooding response:

Small UAVs have been tasked for at least eight disasters with flooding or had flooding associated with it:

  • Hurricane Katrina 2005
  • Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan 2009
  • Thailand Floods 2011
  • Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines 2013
  • Boulder Colorado floods 2013
  • Oso Washington Mudslides 2014
  • Balkans flooding Serbia 2014
  • Cyclone Pamela Vanuatu 2014

From the several UAV platforms that went airborne each provided rapid and often timely information to officials and for responders in search and rescue missions as well as the difficulties with recovery.

General reconnaissance: addressing where’s the flooding, where are the people cut off by the flooding, and what roads are still passable.

Hydrological situation awareness: both real-time and post-processed. The flooding caused by the Oso mudslide was a real problem and rotorcraft could hover and stare at the river, letting the hydrologists estimate the flow rate in different areas. The biggest need remains surveying the amount of flooding. And with the addition of photogrammetric image software – UAVs provided details of the terrain and potential for additional flooding or the best place to put a dyke, channel or other mitigation. Our partners at FIT took it further and printed out a 3D model of the terrain to help everyone visualize the terrain.

The power of Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles:

  • Over watch for swift water rescue teams: our friends at South Carolina Task Force 1 have been pushing us to help create the protocols for using small UAVs. Seeing something such as a logjam that might be coming down river and pose a threat to life and limb as they work to rescue people. They’ll get their wish as this is one of the scenarios to be unfolded in our 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding in June hosted by CEI.
  • Debris estimation: both the debris directly from the flood and the indirect debris that follows on from people having to rip out sheet rock and toss water logged carpets. The advances in photogrammetrics make it possible to estimate the volume of debris. That is based on having the “before” survey of the area. To test it, we flew with PrecisionHawk at the Bennett Landfill superfund site in February 2015 to estimate the volume of toxic trash, which was on fire and needed to be safely removed. Part of the data analysis included estimating the content type, because vegetation and construction materials have to get handled and processed differently.
  • Delivery of supplies to isolated regions. We learned during last year’s summer institute that if the locals can hold their own for 72 hours, usually that was sufficient. In Texas, where breeding stock can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, someone to stay behind may make sense. Determining that they are not a victim is vital. Disasters can take people by surprise with a bridge being washed out or a vital need of medicines and other perishables. A group of Texas A&M aerospace students won 2nd place for their small, hefty fixed-wing UAV that could be used to drop off heavier/bigger bundles of supplies from further distances. Groups like Matternet, who like CRASAR are members of FIT, are looking at delivering medicine with rotorcraft.
  • Delivering lifelines, life jackets, and small things to people trapped on roofs: A note about delivering things with a rotorcraft- Using rotorcraft to carry a line or bottle to someone is complicated by the weight and distribution of them. Those factors usually make the UAV very sensitive to wind and control errors. As such, if an open rotor system is used, more distance than normal from a person is needed to account for such errors. One senior design project from last year’s Summer Institute created a two-way audio system for rotorcraft. Since rotors can generate about 85 dB of noise hanging a microphone and speaker on the UAV is ineffective. The Computer Engineering team used noise reduction algorithms from National Instruments LabVIEW to prototype a lightweight 2-way audio system impervious to noise.

Look for more to come from the 2015 Summer Institute for Flooding, June 16-18.

 

Flooding and small UAVs

At this time, we aren’t involved in the horrible Texas and Oklahoma flooding. But we’ve been studying flooding since our deployment with Hurricane Charley in 2004. This blog will give a short background on what we do here at A&M and the upcoming 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding, then the history of small UAVs for flooding, and the potential uses generated by experts at our 2014 Summer Institute on Flooding.

About CRASAR and flooding

The Center for Emergency Informatics (CEI) here at Texas A&M is in the middle of a two-year exploration of information technologies, including unmanned systems, for floods. The CEI is a “center of center” that brings together practitioners, academics, and industry to fuse and apply their knowledge to disasters.  CRASAR is the “response” arm for CEI (actually we do participatory research versus response- similar to what anthropologists like Margaret Mead do. Sometimes the only way to learn is by doing by embedding with the responders, we don’t do disaster tourism).

The CEI is hosting a Summer Institute on Flooding June 16-18, the second on flooding. The choice of flooding was motivated by the fact that flooding is costing the U.S. over 80 lives and $8 billion in damages each year, excluding storm surge from hurricanes. Last year’s summer institute brought together 42 representatives and 12 states from 14 agencies, 14 universities, and 8 companies to consider what information technology is mature enough, or needs a bit of encouragement, to assist with flooding response.

This year’s Summer Institute consists of three exercises, each representing the key problem missions identified by the agencies:

  1. Swift water rescue (June 16)- helping responders rescue people suddenly cut off by rising waters. The plan for the swift water rescue reads like the campground flooding- showing the advantage of having the responders from Texas Task Force 1 and TEEX design exercises around real missions rather than around technologies.
  2. Life-saving response and immediate mitigation (June 17)- where’s the flood, who is at risk?
  3. Restoration and recovery (June 18)- restoring roads, electricity, sewage, etc. as well as insurance companies conducting property damage assessment  and cities generating debris estimation so that they can keep the rats out.

About small UAVs and flooding

Small UAVs have been used at least 8 disasters from flooding or had flooding associated with it: Hurricane Katrina 2005, Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan 2009, Thailand Floods 2011, Typhoon Haiyan Philippines 2013, Boulder Colorado floods 2013, Oso Washington Mudslides 2014, Balkans flooding Serbia 2014, and Cyclone Pamela Vanuatu 2014.

Historically they have been used for:

  • General reconnaissance: where’s the flooding, where are the people cut off by the flooding, and what roads are still passable.
  • Hydrological situation awareness, both real-time and post-processed. The flooding caused by the Oso mudslide was a real problem and rotorcraft were considered because they could hover and stare at the river, letting the hydrologists estimate the flow rate in different areas. The biggest push was for surveying the amount of flooding and- with the addition of photogrammetric image software- the terrain and potential for additional flooding (or the best place to put a dyke, channel or other mitigation). Our partners at FIT took it further and printed out a 3D model of the terrain to help everyone visualize the terrain.

Potential uses for UAVs

  • Overwatch for swift water rescue teams: our friends at South Carolina Task Force 1 have been pushing us to help create the protocols for using small UAVs to help them see that a logjam is coming down river and going to wipe them and the people they are trying to rescue out. This is one of the scenarios we will be playing in our Summer Institute on Flooding in June
  • Debris estimation: both the debris directly from the flood and the indirect debris a few days or weeks later from people having to rip out sheet rock and carpets. The advances in photogrammetrics make it possible to estimate the volume of debris— if you have the “before” survey of the area; we flew with PrecisionHawk at the Bennett Landfill superfund site in February in order to estimate the volume of toxic trash (which was on fire) that needed to be safely removed. The next step is to estimate the content, because vegetation and construction materials have to get handled and processed differently.
  • Deliver supplies to cut off regions. We learned during last year’s summer institute that if the locals can hold out for 72 hours, usually that’s sufficient. Indeed, in Texas, where breeding stock can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment, it may make sense for someone to stay behind. But sometimes people get taken by surprise or a bridge washes out unexpectedly and need diabetes medicine and other perishables. Groups like Matternet, who like CRASAR are members of FIT,  are looking at delivering medicine with rotorcraft. A group of Texas A&M aerospace students won 2nd place for their small but hefty fixed-wing UAV that could be used to drop off heavier/bigger bundles of supplies from further distances
  • Delivering lifelines, life jackets, and small things to people trapped on roofs. A note about delivering things with a rotorcraft- You can use rotorcraft to carry a line or bottle to someone but the weight and distribution usually makes the UAV very sensitive to wind and control errors— if you are using a open rotor system just be aware and maintain more distance than normal from a person if at all possible. One senior design project that resulted from last year’s Summer Institute was to create a 2-way audio system for rotorcraft. The rotors generate about 85 dB of noise so if you’re a responders and want to try to talk with a person by hanging a microphone and speaker on the UAV, it probably won’t work. The Computer Engineering design team used noise reduction algorithms from National Instruments LabVIEW to prototype a lightweight 2-way audio system impervious to noise.

 

 

 

 

CBC: Nepal earthquake: Drones used by Canadian relief team

Nepal earthquake: Drones used by Canadian relief team

Wired: Disaster-Relief Tech Goes All-Out In Nepal

WIRED article

Nepal: recommendations for small UAVs

As the tragedy in Nepal unfolds, the immediate rescue response has ended and now efforts are shifting to agencies working on the mitigation of the event and dealing with continuing cascade of consequences and hopefully to recovery as well as humanitarian relief.  We have not been asked to participate and cannot self deploy but to those planning to fly small UAVs, I recommend that you look over the range of uses of small UAVs in the past 8 earthquakes in the past blog (and in more detail in Disaster Robotics). Plus:

  • Be aware that the altitude may change the performance of your platform
  • Working in complex terrains such as mountains will impact any preplanned paths. We have found that imagery reconstructions from fixed-wings will do better with a series of flights “stair stepping” along a hill or mountain than trying to cover the entire area at one altitude. Also a flight at one altitude may violate any flight AGL restrictions because to be high enough to fly at the top of the mountain, you’ve almost certainly exceeded the AGL limits for the lowest part of the terrain. We have found that rotorcraft flight plans work better as a set of vertical planes.
  • If you are planning to conduct structural inspection missions, you will most likely need to fly with 3-10m of the structure. Be aware that this creates wind effects and can interfere with GPS and wireless connectivity. Also, our research with civil engineers indicates that no matter how much video or photos we try to take, having a specialist who knows exactly what to look for is critical.
  • Expect engineers and structural specialists to use the raw images. Our studies at Disaster City indicate that orthomosaics do not accurately show straight edges on buildings and have a slight bit of ghosting, regardless if from fixed or rotorcraft.
  • Be aware that the country may have a temporary flight restriction in order to protect manned helicopters working at low altitudes in the area- that applies to anything that flies, there are no hobbyist exemptions. The normal procedure is for ANY aircraft, manned or unmanned, to coordinate with the air traffic control so that the manned helicopters can continue to operate. Regardless, manned systems cannot see small UAVs and thus cannot avoid. Should they see a small UAV operating and are not briefed, they typically have to return to base because of the possibility of a collision. Sending someone to the Air Branch of the incident command can go a long way to making sure ad hoc flights don’t accidentally interrupt other activities.

 

Nepal: disaster robots and earthquakes- history and uses

Our thoughts and prayers to the victims, families, and responders in Nepal where CNN is reporting over 777 people killed. Here is some information about how disaster robots have and can be used.

Uses: the primary use of disaster robots in 8 previous earthquakes have been to give authorities and experts rapid understanding of the damage and general situation, the state of the infrastructure – especially underwater portions of bridges and ports which is key for transportation of responders and supplies, and the state of building collapses- especially where there is the indication of survivors or where the building must be inspected by experts but it appears to be too unsafe to inspect.

History: Small unmanned systems have been reported for use in response and mitigation of 8 earthquakes. The first reported use in 2004- an experimental ground robot from IRS exploring a house in the Niigati Chuestsu (Japan) earthquake with the Japanese equivalent of FEMA. In 2009 a small UAV was deployed in Italy by La Sapienza with the Italian Fire Department for the L’aquila Earthquake. At the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, the Navy MSDU used underwater ROVs to clear the port so that ships could bring in responders and supplies without running aground or collapsing the piers. The Haitian airspace was under a temporary flight restriction but there was a  small UAV that self-deployed and performed reconnaissance. A small UAV was tried for indoor inspection of the cathedral at the Christchurch earthquake (2011) but the structural specialists shifted to ground robots.  Underwater robots were used extensively by municipalities with some use of the ground robots and small UAVs for structural inspection at the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami in 2011.  Small ground and UAVs were used by the NifTI team with the Italian Fire Department at the Finale Emilia earthquake for structural inspection in 2012. The Chinese military used small UAVs at the 2013 Lushan China earthquake and the 2014 Yunnan China earthquake for rapid reconnaissance of hard to reach areas.

 

 

Vanuatu: How disaster robots have helped in 12 similar events and might help there

I’m here at the UN World Disaster Conference where word of the destruction in Vanuata is coming in and our thoughts and prayers go to out the victims and families. It sounds like the effort is on humanitarian relief.  I’m not seeing any discussion of mitigation/response/recovery of critical infrastructure, which is the historical focus of disaster robotics. Here’s some information on how robots have helped in 12 similar disasters.

Small unmanned aerial systems have been used by rescue authorities in 8 storm or flooding events: Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Wilma, Typhoon Morakot (Taiwan),  Thailand floods, Typhoon Haiyan (Philippines), Boulder Colorado floods, SR530 mudslide and flood, Serbia floods. UAS are most often used for rapid reconnaissance and mapping of the extent of devastation, condition of transportation routes and what areas are cut off, power lines, and general hydrological and geological mitigation needed to predict, contain, or drain water, etc.

Small marine vehicles have been used by rescue authorities in 3 storm and flooding events: Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Ike, Tohoku tsunami (Japan).  They are mostly used to identify the state of bridges and ports, debris that is blocking ports or polluting fishing areas, and for the recovery of victims that were washed away into the sea. Plus they were used at the Haiti earthquake to clear underwater debris from the port to allow humanitarian relief supplies to be shipped in (it’s hard to feed a country via planes into a single airport). In Japan, the use of marine vehicles by the IRS-CRASAR team was credited for re-opening the Minamisaniruku new port 6 months earlier than would have been possible with manual divers and in time for the key salmon fishing season.

Unmanned ground robots are almost never used because commercial buildings rarely collapse in these conditions, it is mostly individual homes.

Tohoku earthquake anniversity and UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

wcdrr-logo-desktop-v3.0It is the 4th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and I am en route to Sendai where the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. It is sobering to think that over 18,000 people died and that the great nation of Japan is still recovering.  It makes it even more appropriate for Japan to host the conference and at Sendai. I look forward to seeing my colleagues from the International Rescue Systems Institute who we worked side-by-side with unmanned marine vehicles.

I will be giving an invited talk on the current state and achievement of  disaster robotics during the Public Forum. In looking back between 2011 and now, the biggest surprise is that unmanned marine vehicles are not being used as much as I would have thought. The tsunami response and recovery showed the efficacy of these tools and how the can do in 4 hours what it take divers weeks to do (if they are available). There’s no surprise in that unmanned systems are being used more frequently! I’ll post the my findings when I give my talk– no spoilers!

Thoughts on what the proposed FAA SUAS rules mean for search and rescue

by Brittan Duncan with Robin Murphy

Here are our notes on the recommended rules, which are currently open for public comment and are not in force, and how they might impact public agencies, especially fire rescue.  Current operations should still be run under the existing COA process for public agencies. Also, even though the rules are open for public comments for 60 days, that doesn’t mean the rules will be made official in 60 days or that these will indeed be the final rules.

In the future, COAs may not be necessary for flight, as the rules would let agencies pick and choose whether to fly as a civil operation or as a public entity.

If you are flying in Class G and under 500 feet AGL with a registered vehicle less than 55 pounds and a top speed of less than 100mph with a pilot who has passed the proposed UAS ground school (“aeronautical knowledge test”), you won’t need a COA. You will still have to comply with NOTAMs, TFRs, see-and-avoid rules, and rules for flying over people. Note: you will also need to consider any local regulations on privacy, etc. Remember, just because the FAA says you can fly without a COA in an area, it doesn’t mean your constituency finds it acceptable.

If you are flying in other classes of airspace, you have work with the local ATC. Exactly how this happens is unclear and we suspect that in practice many ATCs will say “get a COA” and in some of those cases, you may still have to have to pilot with a civilian pilot’s license. Hopefully not, but that’s still unclear. It would be the worst case scenario, though, which is manageable.  This gives more flexibility for emergency situations where you need to fly in a tower controlled area but hadn’t made prior arrangements with the ATC- they can say “ok, you can fly this one time but let’s work out a better plan after the emergency is over.” Of course, the ATC can also say “no.”

You can fly over people who are covered, such as those in their houses in a neighborhood or in their cars in traffic, but you are responsible for mitigation, as in: your agency is liable.  You would be allowed to fly over uncovered people only if they  are directly participating in the operation (like other fire fighters and police) and have received a briefing. However, as a public agency, that may not be realistic except during training or highly localized flights during an incident where the site was cordoned off. Fortunately, it looks like agencies will have some discretion in how they alert civilians. Informing residents that you are flying in their area to search for a person, asking people to stay indoors temporarily, posting signage, etc., may be sufficient. Your agency probably already has SOP for various activities and those can be expanded to handle SUAS.  Note that even if your agency feels it is acting within its bounds, SUAS make some people very antsy and thus anything you can do to proactively reduce misperceptions will probably benefit your agency in the long run.

You still have to maintain line of sight.  Still no looking through binoculars or cameras. This applies to both the operator and the visual observer, who must both be able to see the vehicle at any time and should be able to tell which direction it is facing, as well as direction of flight.

You can have a mobile operation with a visual observer on a moving boat, but not a moving car.   This is great news for agencies who want to map rivers or wetlands, “meh” for everyone else.

You can have multiple UAS in the same airspace, but each requires their own pilot and visual observer. We are looking forward to this as we see a need in wilderness search and rescue for a fixed-wing to conduct a thorough survey at a higher altitude while a rotor-craft is directed to the high probability spots for a missing person.

You can eliminate the separate visual observer if the pilot flies “heads up” and always keeps eyes on the UAS. Note: This is only allowed for flights in which you are not using any first person view- you can’t “fly the camera” as the pilot without a visual observer. Our studies with SUAS and decades of studies in manned aviation suggest a single person switching between first person view and external views can lead to errors, so although it adds manpower (sigh) we agree with this.

When you want to use first person view, in conjunction with a visual observer, the visual observer is not allowed to manipulate any flight controls, look through the camera to pan/tilt/zoom in on an object, or initiate any autonomy (e.g., select waypoints). Your mission specialist (for us, there’s usually a responder saying “no, this is what I want to look at”) can’t be your visual observer. This is important to note in systems that require multiple interfaces, such as a hand controller and a computer.  Another option is to fund our research in multi-modal user interfaces that don’t overwhelm the pilot and don’t require them to look at a screen!

You have to have 5 minutes of reserve power to insure a return to home and controlled landing. Note: in practice, you also want to keep track of the distance to home/time to home. We think the real point is always being able to return home unless there is a catastrophic failure of the SUAS.  5 minutes may be excessive for small areas where the SUAS can return safely in less than 2 minutes, but no one has ever been sad to have too much fuel.

You can’t fly at night. It looks like you will have to go through the COA process for this.  The SUAS rules document actually says “The FAA welcomes public comments with suggestions on how to effectively mitigate the risk of operations of small unmanned aircraft during low-light or nighttime operations.”  Which sounds like “if you’ve got any ideas, let us know, because we didn’t come up with anything that could be a hard and fast rule.”