Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

Emergency Managers Find Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Effective for Flooding and Popular With Residents

A paper to be presented next week at the IEEE International Symposium on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics in Lausanne, Switzerland, details the use of small unmanned aerial systems in two recent Texas floods in Fort Bend County, a major Houston suburb and 10th largest populated county in Texas. The 21 flights over four days provided flood mapping and projection of impacts, helping the county prepare and respond to the floods. Surprisingly, the flights did not encounter public resistance and the videos became a popular and useful asset for informing the county residents as to the state of the flooding. A pre-print is available here.

The small unmanned aerial systems were deployed through the Roboticists Without Borders program of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue for two flood events in April and May 2016. Both events were presidential declared disasters.  Experts from DataWing Global, CartoFusion Technologies, USAA, and Texas A&M embedded with the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management and the Fort Bend County Drainage District to fly low-cost DJI Phantoms and Inspires. The flights provided flood assessment including flood mapping and projection of impact in order to plan for emergency services and verification of flood inundation models, providing justification for future publicly accountable decisions on land use, development, and roads.

The paper, titled Two Case Studies and Gaps Analysis of Flood Assessment for Emergency Management with Small Unmanned Aerial Systems by Murphy,  Dufek, Sarmiento, Wilde, Xiao, Braun, Mullen, Smith, Allred, Adams, Wright, and Gingrich, documents the successful use of the small unmanned aerial systems for the two. It discusses the best practices that emerged but also identifies gaps in informatics, manpower, human-robot interaction, and cost-benefit analysis.

The annual IEEE International Symposium on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics was established in 2002 by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. It is the only conference dedicated to the use of ground, aerial, and marine robots for public safety applications. It typically attracts 60-150 researchers, industrialists, and agency representatives from North America, Europe, and Asia. This year’s conference will be held at Lausanne, Switzerland, see for more information about the conference.

The TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue is the leader in documenting, deploying, and facilitating technology transfer of unmanned systems for disasters. It has inserted robots or advised on the use of robots at over two dozen events in 5 countries, starting with the 9/11 World Trade Center and including Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

For more information contact:


Justin Adams, US Datawing and UAS lead for Roboticists Without Borders, , 832.653.1057

Dr. Robin Murphy, director for the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue,, 813.503.9881

For Hurricane Matthew: Quick Guide For Agencies Flying small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) for Emergencies

The illustrated version in pdf is here.

This quick guide is aimed at helping emergency managers quickly determine how they can exploit small unmanned aerial systems (like quadcopters).  The guide covers our best understanding of who can fly?  where can they fly?, and  any additional considerations in planning. Our best practices series has other documents on what kind of data you can expect to get, flight duration, etc., but this guide is about how the new regulations impact emergency managers. It is based on our SUAS deployments since 2005 and lessons learned from deployments by our colleagues.




If members of your agency own a small UAS or have friends with a small UAS, they cannot fly at the disaster- even if they aren’t asking for money. The FAA has repeatedly ruled that a) disasters are a business or government activity and  b) if the UAV flight is a donation to a business or government, it is the same thing as if the business or government agency flew directly.


Therefore, the only people/companies who can fly are those with a:

  • Part 107 license. The license is new and many people/companies don’t have these yet.
  • 333 exemption. Essentially a business license versus of the COA. Many hobbyist declared themselves a company to get a 333.
  • COA. Essentially a government or academic license.


Your agency does not have to have the 107, 333, or COA– just formally invite the group to fly on your behalf. If the group has one of the above, there are three important caveats.


1. Controlled airspace. They can fly at a disaster in uncontrolled airspace, but will need special permissions for controlled airspace. Keep in mind, many densely populated areas will be in controlled airspace.


2.  They have to obey all the flight restrictions for their license, including Temporary Flight Restrictions. Getting permission to fly under a Temporary Flight Restriction does not give them permission to change up the rules, it only means that they are now coordinated with the rest of the air traffic who will expect them to obey the same rules as in normal flights.


3. 24 hour notifications before flights may be required.  If the group is flying under a 333 or COA, they have to post an online notice of intention to fly in a specific area, called a NOTAM, 24 hours in advance. So if you think you are going to have a group fly, have them declare as soon as you know. There is no downside to filing a NOTAM and then not flying.





For planning purposes there are 3 types of airspaces: uncontrolled, controlled, and TFRUncontrolled means they can fly anywhere that is not controlled according to their license. TFR was covered above. That leaves the controlled airspace.


You can quickly determine if an area you want a group to fly in is in controlled airspace by going to:


and enter the nearest town, then click the appropriate boxes.  What is “Controlled airspace” and what you have to do to get permission to fly in it will depend on whether the group has a) a Part 107 license or b) a 333 exemption or COA.


a. Determining Part 107 controlled airspace.  If the group has a 107, click on the menu on the left that says Controlled Airspace and “all”. You will get something like this:





Anything in shade means that it is controlled airspace. This means that they can fly only IF they have an airspace authorization that they have applied for in advance online and gotten approval. Note: the FAA system is backlogged by weeks, so for Matthew, this may not make possible to get approval fast enough.


b. Determining 333 or COA airspace.


Clear airmap and instead click on “blanket COA”. You should get something like this:




Any area in orange means that the airspace is off limits without additional permissions- no matter what altitude you are flying at.  The controlled airspace is due to airports. A local group may already have permission to fly in those areas, but may not. If not, permission to fly in controlled airspace on short notice is handled through an Emergency COA, also called ECOA, process. The process takes about 1 hour to get through the FAA- assuming you have the GPS coordinates of where you want to fly, the COA number, etc.


The key is that the tower has to approve the flights (actually the approve the process of letting them know where you’re flying, when you take off, land, etc.) and the FAA has to agree to the temporary extension of the current license.


  • Note about 333 exemption. ECOAs are granted only to businesses or agencies, not individuals doing business as. Too many quasi-hobbyists were trying to fly at disasters without working with a response agency.





There are three considerations:


  • Data. The data (images, video) really belongs to your agency and needs to be handled as such. It may have personal identifying information. Some groups may routinely post videos and images to the web or tweet, which might not be appropriate. Therefore, you may want to make clear what the data management policies are applicable to flights on your behalf.


  • Privacy, state laws, or other regulations plus the public perception.  There may be state or local rules that impact the use of SUAS. Regardless, if you have a group flying SUAS for disasters, the residents will need to be aware that they are legitimate- plus the teams will be magnets for residents asking for help or assistance. So you will probably want to plan to have an agency representative in uniform or vest with the team.


  • Some SUAS may be software disabled from flying in TFR areas. DJI Phantom 3 and Inspires, which are very common, are now disabled by the manufacturer when a TFR is in place. So that may be something to discuss with your SUAS team.  DJI does have a procedure that allows agencies to override the software and fly up to 1.5 nautical miles from an airport, trusting the group to have obtained permissions.

Unmanned Systems and Hurricane Matthew: Lessons from 2010 Haiti Earthquake

As Hurricane Matthew approaches Haiti, it is hard not to think of the terrible devastation from the 2010 earthquake. The Haiti earthquake taught us some valuable lessons about the use of unmanned systems for the initial response to a disaster- that 0-24 hour period where emergency managers are trying to get an accurate assessment of the scope of the disaster and how to allocate resources to save lives immediately and mitigate any dangers, and to set in motion the plans and resources needed to protect lives and quality of life for the longer term. One key lesson is that bigger is better, at least for the initial aerial assessment. Another is to not forget about unmanned marine systems. These two lessons show up in other events such as other hurricanes and tsunamis. A lesson that did not come out of Haiti was that the effective use of unmanned systems in the 0-24 hour time period depends on communications. UAVs generate terabytes of imagery that are difficult to upload to the Cloud or file transfer/email to others.


In terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, Haiti makes an interesting case study. The Haitian government quickly put out an aviation notice that UAVs were prohibited. Period. That actually made sense given that there would be a lot of helicopters working at low altitudes, general air traffic control was complex enough, and that UAV coordination with air traffic control was still being worked out (and as of 2016, it’s not 100% resolved to this day). What was interesting was that the US Government put up a Global Hawk (see Peterson, Handbook of Surveillance Technologies, 3rd Edition) which provided aerial assessments of the extent of the damage without entering the Haitian airspace and two weeks later Predators were being used and coordinated with manned air traffic (see While on one Snowden-we-are-being-watched level, this may be disturbing to have drones able to see into other countries without violating airspace, on another it is wonderful. Emergency workers can get data without having to totally rework how multiple government agencies coordinate. The most important aspect of the use of military drones is that it illustrates that agencies need higher altitude, longer persistence UAVs geographically distributed disasters, in order to get the rapid coverage of damage (area X needs help) and state of the infrastructure (what is the best route to get resources there?). As we have seen with flooding in the US (we have a paper about to come out on this), small hobbyist-styles of UAVs are like flashlights illuminating small patches, while military drones are stadium lighting. Of course, big drones or Civil Air Patrol assets may not be available. This leads to the questions as to whether small hobbyists quadcopters can contribute, how to aggregate the data from hobbyists and send it (especially under low bandwidth conditions), and how can agencies handle the volumes of data and trust the data they are getting. These are some of the issues raised in my article at


The second lesson from Haiti in terms of unmanned systems is to not forget the value of unmanned marine vehicles. If the hurricane brings intensive flooding or high storm surges, then the underwater portions of the critical infrastructure are at risk. This means bridges (I’ll never forget crossing the bridge into Punta Gorda for Hurricane Charley and the team being told not to stop on the bridge because there was not way to know how safe the bridge was). Bridges are important but also ports and shipping channels. It also mean pipelines, which can be leaking and affecting the environment, and telecommunications (the 2015 Texas Memorial Day floods washed away the bridge and the telephone lines to Wemberly). In Haiti, the state of the ship channel was unknown (had any depths changed?) as was the over port (could it take the weight of cargo being unloaded onto the docks?). The traditional approach has been to use divers, but in Haiti, the Navy and Army MDSU 2 team used SeaBotix ROVs to speed up the assessment as noted in Disaster Robotics (


Disaster Robotics has more information about unmanned systems at the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

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.


Italian Earthquake: Recommendations for using ground and aerial robots for immediate lifesaving

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Italian people impacted by the earthquake. We’ve reached out to colleagues in Italy in case any of us here can be of assistance. Below is a general overview of what might be useful and why.

From the scanty news reports in the US, my guess is that this event will favor the use of small tethered ground robots for locating survivors in rubble based on the case studies from 9/11 World Trade Center, Cologne Archives collapse, Berkman Plaza collapse Prospect Towers collapse, L’aquila earthquake, Mirandola earthquake, and multiple mine disasters worldwide (see Disaster Robotics, MIT Press, 2014 for those case studies). UAVs may be of value in estimating extent, ascertaining whether roads are open or can be easily cleared to allow responders rapid access, and general damage assessment and recovery operations (as per Nepal and Chile), but probably not for direct life saving- though I could be wrong.

“Small”  as in pipe inspection robots- not a bomb squad robot like the Packbots used at Fukushima- because if a person or dog could get into a void to reach a trapped person, they probably would despite the personal risk. A tether is useful because it solves wireless and power problems- but more importantly any entry would likely be from the top of the structure or the upper parts, so the robot has to rappel down.

A video camera, color, is essential. Thermal cameras may be of use initially but are very hard to use for navigation in confined spaces. So I wouldn’t recommend thermal by itself, rather as a second camera. The value of a thermal camera goes away after a few days because decomposing bodies present a heat signature. Navigation gets harder as small protrusion become the same temperature as the surroundings.

A robot with 2-way audio will be valuable because the operator can call out and listen for sounds of survivors, then medical experts can talk with the victims. But even just a speaker or a microphone by itself can be useful.

Should someone find a survivor, a small tube can be attached to the robot to provide water to a trapped victim- hook up the end to an aquarium or koi pond pump. (This is a great solution worked out by Eric Rasmussen and we tested with the USMC CBIRF unite.) The robot can probably maneuver and bring a small payloads- a radio, a space blanket, power bars (assuming they aren’t severely injured). LACoFD does so many confined space rescues, they can have a kit the size of a Pringles can for trying to give to people trapped in caves and culverts.

NRP All Things Considered: New Robot System Helps Migrants Cross The Mediterranean Safely

More flooding– recommendations for small UAVs

Flooding continues through the southeast and we are getting some preliminary requests– here’s a quick rundown of  previous blogs:

suggestions from our work at the Texas floods where we flew with Lone Star UASC

a history of use of robots at floods

why the flood of data may be the biggest problem in floods

and some suggestions on flying for floods

plus best practices:

Let’s hope the flooding is not too bad- a bit of the luck of the Irish in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

The Taiwan Earthquake: robots

We are just getting word of several building collapses in the Taiwan earthquake, here are some thoughts and data on how robots have been used in previous collapses…

Ground robots may be of the most value. In a situation like this where the building has collapsed,  small robots will likely to get into voids and go deeper than the 18-20 feet that a camera on a probe or a boroscope can go into. Note that canines would normally be used first to indicate that people are alive (if there was any doubt about occupancy). The ground robots would be used to try to localize the survivors AND allow the rescue team to at the same time understand the internal layout of the structure. If they can better understand the internal layout of the “pixie sticks” of the rubble, they can extricate the victims faster and with less chance of triggering a secondary collapse. Most of the ground robots used, such as the Inuktun series which have been used the most, have 2 way audio so the responders can talk to the victims.

With our colleague Eric Rasmussen, MD FACP, we’ve experimented with how a small robot can carry tubing allowing a survivor to have water. With members of Texas Task Force 1 medical team, we’ve experimented with how doctors can use the robot to communicate with the survivor, assess their injuries, and engage the survivors- as it may take 4-10 hours to be extracted.

Similar situations where ground robots have been used for multi-story commercial building collapses are:

  • 2001 9/11 World Trade Center collapse
  • 2010 Prospect Towers collapse
  • 2011 Christchurch earthquake

Ground robots are often not used in earthquakes, such as the Japanese earthquake, because of building resilience and codes. Residential homes are small, often wood, and fairly easy to locate victims with canine teams and then extracting. Adding a robot doesn’t really speed up anything.

UAVs can give an overview of a collapse, but generally it has been the “inside” view that responders need the most and can’t get any other way.



CRASAR donates 2 E.M.I.L.Y.s to Hellenic Coast Guard and Red Cross

On January 14, 2016, the Roboticists Without Borders program hosted by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) donated an E.M.I.L.Y. lifeguard robot to the Hellenic Coast Guard working on Lesvos Island, Greece. The Coast Guard completed training with E.M.I.L.Y. on Jan 17, 2016. Cutter 618 under Captain Nicholas took her on her first mission that afternoon for the 4:00 pm – 12 pm patrol of the straights.  On January 18, 2016, the program donated the second E.M.I.L.Y. to the Hellenic Red Cross. CRASAR has been assisting the Hellenic Red Cross and ProActiva lifeguarding teams (see for details and video).


This reflects an evolution in robotics, both in cost and usability, and a new era for CRASAR of donating robots. When CRASAR was first established, small land and marine robots were prohibitively expensive, costing between $35K and $400K and often unreliable with less than 20 hours between failures. Small aerial systems had not been invented. Independently of cost, there was a second barrier: robots required experienced operators with many days, if not weeks, of training, especially on maintenance. Therefore it was important for CRASAR to not only provide robots but provide experts who could effectively work side-by-side with the responders in disaster conditions. It wasn’t feasible to just hand the technology to responders in the Cold Zone and wave bye-bye.  Now robots are coming down in price plus are much easier and intuitive to operate and maintain and are more reliable. Thus with robots such as E.M.I.L.Y., it is possible to train the responders in the field and let them use it directly without having to incur the  distraction, logistics, and liability of embedding an outsider.


Our mission is to speed adoption and assist responders, not be responders, and it is gratifying to see the technology reach a point where this is becoming possible. One thing hasn’t changed since 2001 and that is the generosity of our Roboticists Without Borders members. Hydronalix CEO Anthony Mulligan donated 2 E.M.I.L.Y.s, plus travel and expenses for himself and the two operators/trainers. He deserves many kudos for his big heart and commitment!


Here are pictures of the EMILY with the crew of Cutter 618:


IMG_3128 2IMG_3124


Here are pictures with the Hellenic Red Cross team:



EMILY fills “The Gap” between lifeguards in boats and on shore to help 4 boats with 200 refugees arrive safely

On Friday morning Jan 15, 2016,  team member Chief Fernando Boiteux (on vacation from his position as head of lifeguards for LA County Fire Department) deployed EMILY  along the northern shore of Lesvos finding a unique ecological niche for her: in the 100 meter “gap” between the beach and where it is deep enough for lifeguard boats to go.

“The Gap” represents a type of no-mans land for lifeguards. It’s the area that the deeper water patrol boats (such as the Hellenic Coast Guard cutters use in the channel between Turkey and Greece and the smaller rigid hull inflatable boats used by NGOs)  cannot enter due to draft restrictions but is too far out for lifeguards on shore to wade and has to be approached by a swimming lifeguard.  If the boat capsizes, people fall or misjudge the depth and jump off, or the boat runs aground, the lifeguards in patrol boats are not in position to help.  The lifeguards on land have to swim floatation devices out, taking valuable time and risking panicking people trying to climb on their heads.

Another challenge posed by “The Gap” is what happens when multiple boats arrive. Lifeguards on shore have to split their attention and may lose situation awareness of what is going on, especially in behind boats or sides that are blocked from view.


EMILY was able to fill the gap on Thursday by being able to work in the shallow water gap and to provide situation awareness with her cameras for the Hellenic Red Cross and PROACTIVA lifeguard teams on land who worked tirelessly as nearly a dozen boats arrived at first light along the rocky shore. Once on shore, other NGOs get the refugees to shelter.


This video show EMILY in The Gap and how she gives the lifeguards the ability to keep an eye on multiple boats. Note that 1 EMILY enabled 1 lifeguard to watch multiple boats and maintain general situation awareness.


We are still short of actual travel costs, so please consider donating at