Archive for the ‘Disaster Zone’ Category

Mexico City hospital collapse…

A building collapse is almost always terrible, a building collapse of a maternity ward is unthinkable. All of us send our thoughts and prayers to the families of this horrible event.

Although there is no news about any robots being used, robots were first used in disasters for commercial multi-story building collapses– notably the 9/11 World Trade Center. Commercial multi-story buildings present unique challenges for searching because the concrete floors can be densely pancaked in some areas with just inches of space and leave survivable voids in others.

Small robots like the shoe-boxed sized micro VGTV and micro Tracks by Inkutun were used the most at the WTC because they could go into the rubble where a person or dog could not fit and could go further than a camera on a wand. That is still the case, with small robots being used to go between tightly packed layers of rubble at the Berkman Plaza II collapse in Jacksonville (2007) and the Prospect Towers collapse in New Jersey (2010).

Bigger robots such as the IED robots like iRobot Packbot and QinetiQ Talon are often too big for the size of voids in the rubble of a pancake collapse. Really large, “maxi” robots such as the REMOTEC series are not only too big, but the weight poses a problem- as in they are so heavy they could cause a secondary collapse.

If anyone knows of other multi-story building collapses where robots were used, please let me know and a reference and I’ll send a CRASAR patch.

In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers to the families in Mexico…

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!


Ebola Robot Workshop at Texas A&M: my report out

TEEX trainer in protective gear with a "MUTT" robot carrying a litter at the workhop demo.

TEEX trainer in protective gear with a “MUTT” robot carrying a litter at the workhop demo.

CRASAR, with funding from the Center for Emergency Informatics, and the TEEX Product Development center held a two day series of workshops on robotics for medical disasters.  The major takeaway was that robots do exist that could be immediately repurposed now to protect Ebola health workers but how robots fit into the medical response enterprise is as important as what the robots can actually do. While most roboticists intuitively know that what will work in the US is not the same as what will work in West Africa, the differences go beyond physical constraints such as level floors, ample power, and reliable wireless communications infrastructure. Less intuitive is that the cultural appropriateness of the technology and the impact on the existing workflows and practices is equally important.

The workshops considered how robots could be used immediately and in future domestic medical responses. Hardened robots (and automation/CPS technologies) do exist that could be immediately repurposed to provide logistical services (e.g., packing and hauling contaminated waste) and reconnaissance (e.g. observing signs of mass graves near a village), less so for clinical applications (e.g., directly working with patients). The participants strongly concurred that a research roadmap is needed to prepare robots that the US can effectively use in future medical disasters.

The success of hardened robots in providing these services depends on ensuring that they are appropriate for the work domain in five ways:

  1.  Fit the cultural context. For example, a telepresence robot allowing a certified medical interpreter to talk with the family and talk the patient’s history may overwhelm a non-Western family who has never seen a computer. A less obtrusive telepresence solution may be more practical in that cultural context.
  2. Fit the existing workflow and practices. For the short term, solutions aren’t solutions if they require health workers or medical responders to adopt radically new procedures. They simply can’t handle more things to do or change how they perform their current tasks (which impacts how everyone performs all the other tasks- “simple” changes can have system ramifications). However, small changes that produce at least a tenfold benefit can make a difference.
  3. Can function in the target environment. For example robots in West Africa would have work reliably in field hospitals with canvas floors and narrow doors, muddy dirt roads in the rainy season, with power and wireless communications limitations, etc., while robots in the US would have more pristine conditions. Different groups use different decontamination procedures and chemicals- such as dousing everything with chlorine beach solution (easy and inexpensive) or using more chemically sophisticated decontamination foams used by urban hazardous materials teams.
  4. Are maintainable and sustainable. Health workers and medical responders won’t have the time and skills to repair robots (especially if wearing PPE) and may not have access to consumables such as batteries to enable operations for weeks and months. A problem with the Fukushima response was that many robots were actually prototypes functioning at a Technical Readiness Level of 7 rather than a well-tested Level 9 system.
  5. Are easy to use and be trained on. This is related to fitting into the existing workflow and practices, but deserves special emphasis. The health workers and responders will not have significant amounts of time to learn new tools, as their days are already overloaded and they have little personal time.  Robots must be vetted for ease of use. Effective training for medical missions is important and the role of simulation or serious games should not under-estimated.

The sentiment shared by the TAMU participants was that the biggest barrier to near-term use was not the lack of capable robots but rather the lack of requirements that would allow industry to invest in repurposing robots and  enable agencies to test and evaluate the robots and develop training.  Currently there are no details on the operational envelopment for the robot or operator. There is no clearinghouse of social science data on cultural appropriateness or bioethics or specific missions.


The first day of the workshop was hosted by CRASAR and held at the National Center for Therapeutic Manufacturing. The day was divided into two portions. One was a simulcast of shared presentations with the other three sites and brainstorming as part of the planning workshops on Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers for the White House OSTP/National Robotic Initiative. The other part, the Texas A&M Workshop on Robotic, Automation and Cyber Physical Systems for Medical Response to Disasters, provided additional talks and discussions on general domestic medical response. The Texas A&M talks covered the state of the practice in DoD robots (TARDEC) and casualty evacuation systems (TATRC) that can be repurposed, lessons learned so far in using robots at the Fukushima Daiichi decommissioning (University of Tokyo), and opportunities for community recovery (TAMU Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center). The day culminated with a reception and a thought provoking keynote talk by Andrew Natsios (TAMU Bush School of Government and Public Policy), who served as administrator of USAID from 2001-2006.

The second day, the Infectious Disease Response Workshop,  was hosted by Caleb Holt and the TEEX Product Development Center and held at the TEEX Emergency Operations Training Center/Disaster City® complex. The focus was on the practice of medical response (one of TEEX many courses that they teach). A major portion of the day was spent in demonstrations of the current practices in medical response, walking participants through 3 modules of a field hospital (also called an Emergency Treatment Unit or ETU), showing how contaminated waste is stored and overpacked, and how domestic responders, equipment, and ambulances are decontaminated. One demonstration was not a current practice but showed how existing robots might be of use.  That demonstration showed the General Dynamics Land Systems MUTT, a robot wagon that acts like a dog and can carry waste, supplies, or one or two litters. A responder guides the robot with a leash rather than a video game controller that is hard to carry and use while wearing personal protective equipment. If the responder stops, the robot stops. If the person backs up, the robot backs up. The second day also featured panels of practitioners, including from the Texas Ebola Task Force and the USMC Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, comparing military and domestic practices


In terms of overall medical disasters, applications appear to fall into one of three broad categories below, regrouping the preliminary list of nine functions discussed in an earlier blog. Each category has a different set of stakeholders and a different operational envelope that the robots would operate in. Clinical applications are possibly what people think of first– how robots can replace what health workers do now—but logistical applications are perhaps the most feasible and practical.

Clinical:  Clinical applications are where robots are used in the ETU as a “force multiplier” (another way of saying “reducing manpower”) by taking over some of the activities that health workers do or as adding reliability by coaching or supervising activities. Ignoring for a moment the cultural appropriateness and other adoption issues, robots could enable

  • Remote health workers to assist other health workers, such as telepresence robots (or just cameras/tablets) coaching or supervising taking off PPE– though the general consensus of our responder base was that having a second person physically helping with decon was more valuable than having someone saying “hey, you touched your face while trying to lift your hood.” Domestic hazmat responders and the USMC Chemical Biological Incident Response Forces use a two personal decontamination process.
  • Health workers could use robots to interact with patients, reducing the number of times workers have to risk exposure.  Robots could provide non-invasive point-of-care such as changing IV bags, though the TAMU participants were more reserved about roboticizing invasive procedures such as starting IV lines.
  • Remote health workers to interact with family members, such as remote qualified medical interpreters working through telepresence to help with patient intake forms.

Logistical: Logistical applications can take place within the ETU, but the construction, layout, and clutter of ETUs make it hard for mobile robots to move around. Some ETUs have canvas floors over dirt or mostly level manufactured floors, and almost all have raised areas to step over between modules that seem intended to foul wheels. The general thought is that flexible automation and materials handling are more likely to be of benefit within an ETU and that robots would be more useful for outside the ETU. Logistical robots are also interesting in terms of stakeholders. Since they are not performing clinical functions, in theory the robots could be operated by locals (assuming favorable cultural considerations).

Logistical robots could provide

  • Materials handling. Robots could reduce the number of times humans handle contaminated waste or the number of people needed to carry a litter. The robots could pack and carry materials from the warm zone to the cold zone (e.g., taking out the trash) or carry supplies into the warm zone, saving another cycle of a person having to don and doff PPE.
  • Decontamination. Robots could spray biocide foam on equipment, though there was several ideas for using gases to rapidly decontaminate ambulances so as to keep them in service.
  • Delivery and resupply. Unmanned aerial vehicles or boats could drop off small amounts of supplies to villages cut off by the rainy season.

Reconnaissance: Reconnaissance activities take place outside of the ETU. Aerostats or UAVs can provide awareness of long lines or gathering refugees. A more somber recon activity is to fly over villages and look for signs of freshly turned earth indicating graves.

Other:  The workshops also touched on preparation for medical response, such as redesigning field hospitals to make it easy to use robots and to add cameras, internet repeaters, etc. The workshops raised the value of automated construction in reducing the non-medical members of the team needed to set up and maintain the ETU.

China earthquake: Drone on-site plus other ways robots can help.

YouTube Preview Image The death toll continues to rise in China’s Yunnan Province earthquake and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, and responders.  The Chinese Army is already using drones to provide responders (as well as geologists and hydrologists) with assessment of damage in the remote, rural areas. In general, ground robots are not terribly useful in earthquakes unless there are significant building collapses where canines can smell survivors but robots are needed to crawl in spaces that responders and canines can’t get in.  Unmanned marine vehicles can be useful in help inspecting the underwater portion of bridges and rapidly determining river channels are open so that ships can bring in supplies.  So while robots are unlikely to directly save lives, they fulfill their goal of helping the responders help the survivors!

Structural Inspection with Unmanned Vehicles

katrina sger heli isle of capriMy book Disaster Robotics (MIT Press, Kindle, and iBook) covers structural inspection, documents 16 cases where robots have been used for structural inspection after disasters (the majority by CRASAR, but I’ve documented all cases I can find reported through April 2013) and has criteria for choosing what robot,  what the different work envelopes are,  lots of tables/figures per modality, and failure taxonomy and rates.
Here’s a quick guide to structural inspection in Disaster Robotics

- Chi1 defines structural inspection tasks versus recon and other tasks identified for disaster robotics.

- Ch2 list of robots used for what incident, formal failure taxonomy; this gives an overview of the 16 cases where robots have been used for structural inspection

- Ch3 use of ground robots for structural inspection, environments/work envelopes, describes the 5 cases where UGVs used for structural inspection, formulas for how to size a robot for an inspection task and a set of design spaces, gaps

- Ch4 use of UAVs for structural inspection, environments/work envelopes, describes the 7 cases where UAVs have been used for structural inspection, choice of rotorcraft versus fixed wing, conops,  human-robot ratio and safety, issues with lots of GPS,  gaps

- Ch5 use of marine vehicles for structural inspection, environments/work envelopes, describes the 4 cases where UMVs have been used for structural inspection, the need to inspect upstream not just the bridge substructure,  choice of AUV, ROV, UMV, gaps

- Ch6 how to conduct fieldwork and data analysis, using structural inspection as an example

Phillippines: Yolanda and robots

The death toll appears to be horrific in the wake of the Super Typhoon Yolanda– we are getting inquiries as to assistance. Our thoughts and prayers go out the victims and their families.

UAVs, if on site, can provide immediate damage assessment and locate pockets of trapped survivors as well as the best transportation routes. However, if manned aircraft are available, coordination of airspace may be difficult and manned assets will generally wave off if they see an unknown UAV no matter how low or small in the area they are working in.

UMVs– water based robots- may be of great help for searching for submerged victims and determining the state of bridges, seawalls, polluting debris, etc. While this does not help with life saving, it can enormous economic impact. Initially, ROVs and unmanned surface vehicles (boats) have advantages over AUVs (underwater robots)– AUVs can’t detect the debris in the water, whereas ROVs are on a tether and USVs work on the surface. We used ROVs for the Japanese Tohoku tsunami with our partners at the International Rescue Systems Institute and greatly speed up the reopening of a key fishing port.



OKC Tornado– unmanned systems not the best fit, here’s why

Our hearts go out to the victims and the responders in Oklahoma. We have been working with the FEMA Innovation Team from shortly after the devastation occurred, however aerial and ground unmanned systems are not a good fit for this situation.

In terms of UAVs: There’s already aerial coverage from manned assets and it does not appear that multistory commercial buildings are heavily damaged. Two-story houses and apartment buildings and “strip malls” are well understood failures so additional aerial views are generally not needed to provide more information. If UAVs were available to the first responders, then they would be a much less expensive source of aerial information than manned helicopters or exploiting news helicopters. UAVs provide the ability to serve as wireless nodes (indeed, a big shout out to Roboticists Without Borders member Black Swift Technologies for their work with that) but the coordination with air traffic control and manned assets plus the deployment of COWs (cellular towers on wheels) means that if there weren’t available immediately, they are less likely to be of benefit.
In terms of UGVs: This is a wide affected area with “shallow” debris versus a big building collapse. Canines are the quickest way to locate any survivors that aren’t shouting or aren’t on the surface of the debris. You don’t need the UGV to penetrate the debris further than what a search camera can go to help find survivors or speed extrication.
In terms of UMVs: If there are lakes and streams, marine vehicles might be useful in searching for missing person who may have been swept into a pond and drowned.
We continue to stand by to provide assistance as needed.

Waco Explosion: no robots needed

We are all keeping the victims, the families, and the responders in the devastating explosion of the fertilizer plant in Waco in our thoughts and prayers. We’ve reached out and there doesn’t appear to be a need for robots at this time. The event occurred in the evening, a problematic time to fly sUAVs to get an immediate overview. Damage  to residential areas do not require robots, as canines are much faster at detecting victims and the debris is usually sufficiently shallow that the interior view from a robot is not needed for searching or extrication. Robots are sometimes useful for forensics- to enter areas and capture the scene before people enter and disturb it by virtue of entering. But the word is that they aren’t needed for this case.

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.

Update Tanzania collaspe: CRASAR not needed

We have been communicating with the Tanzanian Embassy in London and the response is winding down- we won’t be needed, though we may be asked to engage the Tanzanian response community at a later date to expose them to the advances in rescue robotics. We extend our condolences for the families of the four dead and two injured reported this morning in the news, and hope that the missing will be found.

We are watching the Tanzania building collapse with great sorrow and wish the Tanzanian people and responders the best as they struggle to help the victims and families and deal with their losses. We are on internal stand-by and hope to be invited to assist. In a dense building collapse like this, very small tethered robots can often go 20 to 30 m further than the 8m or so that traditional search camera systems can penetrate. The Japanese Active Scope Camera is also great for dense collapses, as seen at our deployment at the Berkman Plaza collapse in Jacksonville.