Collaboration at a Distance! TU Delft

What a great phrase from the researchers at TU Delft that captures a major aspect of emergency informatics: collaboration at a distance! Given that robots and embedded sensors provide a remote presence into places that people can’t get to (or get to quickly enough), the question is how to use it? Which leads to collaboration at a distance!

As we noted in a recent article (see “From Remote Tool to Shared Roles,” in IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, special issue on New Vistas and Challenges for Teleoperation, 15:4, Dec.08, pp. 39-49), the real human-robot ratio isn’t having 1 person controlling a 1,000 robots but rather having a 1,000 people be able to use the data from a robot, without necessarily knowing that it’s from a robot. And certainly those 1,000 people won’t all know each other and may be working independently (and at cross-purposes), which David Woods at Ohio State calls polycentric control. Plus in order to use the data, we expect some ad-hoc teams to form and that they will use the visual data as a common ground (as per Jenny Burke’s PhD).

I was at the Technical University of Delft (TU Delft) on Wednesday to attend Maarten van Zomeran’s MS defense, as I had been invited to serve on his committee. Maarten did a great job with the Rubbleviewer and his MS was well attended- I am very proud. His thesis was chock full of interesting information beyond the Rubbleviewer, including a comparison of US FEMA search methods and information representation with United Nations INSARAG. Maarten has participated in two full scale exercises, one with the Czech team and one with the Netherland team in an exercise in Dubai- plus with the responders at Disaster City. An amazing grounding for his work in better representations and visualization!

It also gave me an opportunity to meet in person the research team there- they don’t focus on emergency response but that’s becoming an area of interest. A lot of great work in artificial intelligence, HCI, and especially software agents. Prof. Dr. Catholijn Jonker, head of Man Machine Interaction dept (and another right thinking woman!) proposed a way forward for continued work on the Rubbleviewer and collaboration in general. TJ de Greef was a great host (few things are better than great conversations over Dutch white beer in an outdoor plaza!) and I admire his industrial research expertise and research savvy. What a great group of people! Check out

I sat in on a undergraduate student capstone project presentation and was impressed not only by the topic and competence, but also that it was delivered in perfect English.

All that remains… return to Cologne

cologne site jun 09

I’m on travel this week in Europe. My first start was Cologne to meet with the gang from the Franhofer Institute and to present plaques to them and the Cologne Fire Department, thanking them for allowing us to participate in the State Archive Building Collapse. Hartmut, Sebastian, and Thorsten came down from Bonn for dinner and a walk by the collapse site, now leveled, waiting the conclusion of lawsuits, new officials, etc. It is hard to believe that it has only been 3 months. Not only has it only been 3 months, but the city had erected a temporary roof (like those used at stadiums) and removed it.

BTW, I was told the oldest, most valuable manuscripts were among the 20% forever lost.


Prof. Thomas Christaller was receiving a prestigious medal, so the timing was bad, but Harmut arranged a “mini-symposia” at the Franhofer Institute with Capt. Rorhle and me giving talks. All of Capt. Rorhle’s slides were in English, so despite him talking in German, it was totally fascinating. Perhaps the most fascinating was to see the timeline of events, from getting a call 2 minutes before the collapse throughout the first hours. The flow of information (and mis-information) is apparently the same there as it is in the US– which really emphasizes the need for emergency informatics.

Prof. Stefan Wrobel attended and my hats off to him and Thomas for an amazing place! It’s a lovely combination of old (a castle) and new (the buildings and especially the robotics high bay lab) with an artistic and eco sensibility (“green” roofs).

So looking at the cleared site, similar to the WTC site, it is hard to tell that two people lost their lives there, that a physical connection to the past was lost as well. But given that Cologne appears in some ways defines itself by the bombings from WWII, I suspect every resident can feel the tortured earth and have added it to their long memories.

Summer Institutes and being an Alpha Geek

Summer Institute-1

While it’s been longer than I realized since my last post. Part of the delay was the usual end of the semester scrambling, but also much more exciting event our first mini Summer Institute On emergency informatics at Disaster City. A Summer Institute as created by David Woods at Ohio State is and amazing innovation workshop, where the various stakeholders in a system — in this case academics responders, agencies, and industry, give together to learn each other’s language, conduct hands-on missions, and participate in envisioning exercises. We had 35 participants from TEES, TEEX, and our academic and industry partners. Faculty from 5 engineering departments (CE, CSE, ECE, ME, and ENTC) plus Architecture participated along with Carnegie Mellon, Ohio State, and TAMU Corpus Christi. TCAT led the industry affiliates program discussion- attended by 4 industries (Lockheed Martin, AirRobot, SA Technologies, and Velodyne), and the US Army Research Lab. One major outcome was a model of information flow and structural inspection tasks– none of this had any idea how much rescue, recovery and reentry hinges on the structural specialist, building inspectors, insurance adjusters, and contractors. Look for a publication with the model soon!

But the other big news is that Damon Tabor at WIRED did a short piece on us under the Alpha Geek heading. Click here to see. Nice job- he spent over a year on it, we had wanted him to embed with us but couldn’t work it out.

Italian Earthquake: The Gardens of L’Aquila

tent city

laquila flight 2 terrace

laquila quadrotor flight 3


I joined the team led by Prof. Daniele Nardi (Universita’ di Roma La Sapienza) for a one day visit to L’Aquila, Italy, the cultural epicenter of the April 6 earthquake that killed 300 and displaced thousands of others.

It was a long day- I flew into Rome on an overnight flight, arriving Wed at 7:45AM to a quick change into my response gear, a warm welcome from Daniele and his colleagues, and a one and a half hour drive to the mountains. Daniele had gotten the local fire rescue department to give us a heartbreaking tour and permission to fly his group’s small Ascending Technologies Quadrotor on-site. I was along as an observer on this trip, so I didn’t bring any robots, just cameras and my field notebook.

As we drove east from Rome, the mountains were a carpet of spring green dotted with the purple blooms of the Judas trees and the outskirts of town a maze of gardens of tulips and wisteria in full bloom, ins sharp contrast to the maze of collapsed buildings just a few kilometers ahead.

L’Aquila is a historical town in the mountains, along a ridge in a valley, famous for saffron. Think of a 15th century New Orleans French Quarter, the Canal Business District, and the Garden District all along a ridge, providing a mixture of very old, very new, commercial, apartment buildings, and villas. The town has a large university with the flavor of Tulane.

Our first stop was the ruins of an apartment building where a 24 year old student was pulled out alive.

Our second stop was an apartment building where 24 people died.

And everywhere, toys, stuffed animals, legos, and baby blankets peeking out from the rubble causing my heart to clench in fear, “what about the children?”

The team flew four flights among the ancient villas and then a flight downtown along buildings tumbling into the narrow streets, notice the Italian flag in the background. The flight conditions were perfect, no wind and the rain clouds eliminated glare. While the team had no mission, the rubble served as natural targets for trying out camera configurations and flying strategies. The environment offered many examples the close quarters of the types of clutter that make flying in urban areas so challenging: trees, flags, telephone lines, etc.

The displaced will remain so for a long time. The aftershocks are expected to persist through August and it is difficult to assess the structural condition of the buildings and even more difficult to remove or repair structures. We passed two large tent cities on the outskirts of town.

As with hurricanes in the US, the recovery from earthquakes may be harder than the response. To me, it cries out for embedded sensors and smart structures to measure the impact- either before or inserted after a quake in anticipation of aftershocks. It also suggests that we need to explore ways to develop new sensors and use humans and unmanned systems better to more quickly inspect buildings, perhaps using the internet to send data to experts all through out the country rather than having 1 or 2 inspectors or claims adjusters act as a bottleneck. And I wonder how much information is known to the population but unharnessed because we still lag in exploiting connectivity and the “wisdom of the crowd” showing up in twitter, flickr, and other social software?

There’s work to be done…

Italy Earthquake: while waiting, victim management thoughts

I saw the first announcements of the Italy earthquake as I arrived in Seattle at 1AM for the Unmanned Unlimited workshop at AIAA… Wow. Stunned. Scrambled to offer our services, offer prayers for families and responders, got some sleep, waiting for replies.

In this case, it’s not only rescue robots (including Choset’s snake) but also being prepared to put into play what we’ve learned about victim management.

There’s how to do triage with a robot– using the protocol developed by Prof. Carolina Chang from Simon Bolivar University in Venezuela based on work by Dr. Dawn Riddle

There’s the use of robots to carrying IV tubing to victims– thus giving them water, hot air, or liquid medication- part of the work with did with Eric Rasmussen, MD FACP, now with InSTEDD

And there’s the work with Cliff Nass’ CHIME lab at Stanford on the robots serving as a Survivor Buddy.

Hopefully we can help.

Analysis: Caterpillars and Snakes

The Cologne deployment highlights the need for true robot snakes that can work in wet environments and interior of mixed rubble. The ASC is actually a caterpillar. The important point is just like real caterpillars and snakes, the mechanical versions have different ecological niches- I want both. We’re missing a snake from our arsenal of ground robots. Never forget that the US&R ecological niche requires a self-cleaning camera (the equivalent eyelids and tears) to permit rescuers to see as dust, dirt, and water collect on the lens.

The dear ASC (which we’ve nicknamed “Catey”) provides the smallest size on a fieldable robot I’ve ever seen, on par with those big fat hairy caterpillars that either delighted or grossed you out as a child. Like a real caterpillar, it is slow and has to “go with the flow” as it can bend but can’t necessarily climb. Unlike a caterpillar, it is pretty stiff, as only the “head” can bend- the forward motion comes not from undulation but from vibration, which is extraordinarily brilliant but provides less propulsion. Think of the current ASC as a partially paralyzed caterpillar that can’t blink, as if it evolved in the desert- which is great for a fairly dry pancake collapse- like when we used it so successfully at the Berkman Plaza II collapse. I’d like to see the ASC adapt to become a rainforest caterpillar, able to blink and work in mud (the latter may be impossible due to clogging of the cilia). But don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the ASC caterpillar just the way she is!

Snakes, on the other are usually bigger than caterpillars, but more powerful and have eyes that blink. A lot of rattlers have simple thermal sensors for better targeting that poisonous bite (which could be transferred to finding survivors). A robot snake that slithered (technically traverse motion) could climb and more aggressively attempt to penetrate irregular rubble. Notice that snakes are smooth. Many mechanical snakes (see are tracked- lumpy and exposed. And big, just under the size of the Inuktun Extremes. Exposed segmented mechanical snakes (where the snake is a series of miniature tracks or wheels on articulated joints) collect mud and debris interfering with movement. And if there is a way for a device to jam or get tangled, it will. That’s why I am very excited about Howie Choset’s smooth, highly articulated snake (see ). He has been part of the CRASAR team since 2003 and it has been interesting watching his ideas about snakes for US&R evolve with each field exercise he and has students participate in. Anyway, what I want is the mechanical equivalent of a Texas brown snake, a snake that likes to burrow in moist compost (or a mixed rubble collapse).

CRASAR heading home

We’re in the airport now (painfully early in the morning at the Cologne airport, making our way home. The firemen found one of the victims early Sunday morning, the old fashioned way by slow, tedious extrication. As of this morning (Monday), it doesn’t look like the second victim has been found. We were not called out on Sunday but continue to learn more about robots that would be suitable for these conditions. It was a bit embarrassing, the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and the Chief all shook our hands and were very enthusiastic, despite us doing nothing tangible. Indeed, we are very grateful because we learned so much.

The one photo that “got away” was that of a dozen women with cardboard boxes working in the light rain, picking up documents from the rubble a few meters from the rescuers carefully excavating for victims in the dangerous, unstablized rubble. The women looked like they about to weep from the lost and damage to the Archives, while the fire rescue workers were grim. A sad moment

Looking forward to sleeping on the plane!

Day 1.5 at Cologne

Quick notes before getting some sleep… we have been on standby since going to the site on Friday around noon. City of Cologne and fire department (still fuzzy on naming translations) have been terrific and the Fraunhofer Institute IAIS incredibly supportive.

The Archives buildings was a new, modern multistory commercial building surrounding by multistory residential buildings. When it collapsed into the hole, some of the surrounding buildings were damaged. The one where the two victims are missing is an older (like more than a 100 years old looking) brick building. When brick buildings collapse, the brick crumbles into sand and small pebbles, filling every possible void. Even the ASC couldn’t get in.

The robots were requested this afternoon for the mixed rubble from the houses and the Archives, but it wasn’t a good fit. There were small voids but we couldn’t stand at the face of the rubble due to safety reasons- and the ASC requires us to be right there. The voids big enough for the larger Extreme, which we could operate from the safe location ~10m away, were shallow and thus didn’t require a robot. More notes on how to build better robots.

We’re back on site tomorrow- a huge crane is being brought in to do more excavations and more voids may open. It looks like the old fashioned tedious manual rubble removal is the best technology for this job for now.

Lots of pictures but haven’t gotten permission to release them yet, here’s link to pics from the media and gratuitous coverage 😉

Local news in English: