Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

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.



Researchers make a robot with other bots

Engineers have created a modular spider robot that has snake bots as feet. It could be reconfigured to meet almost any user requirement and could also be useful in search and rescue operations. Carnegie Mellon University’s latest robot is called Snake Monster, however, with six legs, it looks more like an insect than a snake. But it really doesn’t matter what you call it, says its inventor, Howie Choset – the whole point of the project is to make modular robots that can easily be reconfigured to meet a user’s needs.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored this work through its Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, which focuses on ways to design and build robots more rapidly and enhance their ability to manipulate objects and move in natural environments. Snake Monster, as well as some of Choset’s other robots, will be demonstrated at the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge in June.

Check out more information at

Russia wants to develop search-and-rescue robots for the Arctic

As Russia focuses on militarizing its Arctic region, the Kremlin is trying to develop military technology needed to operate in one of the world’s harshest environments. Russian military planners are now setting their sights on the development of Arctic rescue robots.

Admiral Victor Chirkov, the head of the Russian Navy, has called for the development and construction of “Arctic underwater search and rescue robots,” Newsweek reports citing Itar-Tass, a state-owned Russian media organization. The robots would be designed to withstand difficult Arctic conditions and cold temperatures.

The robots would be kept aboard Russian icebreakers and other maritime vessels to assist in search-and-rescue missions. They would save human rescuers from having to operate in waters whose temperates average a chilly (and deadly) 28-29 degrees Fahrenheit.

Check out more information at

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.

AAAI-15 Exhibition Interviews

TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) students Brittany Duncan, a NSF Graduate Fellow, Jesus Suarez, a NSF Bridge to the Doctorate Fellow, and Grant Wilde exhibited different rescue robots at the AAAI-15 exhibition. The students and director, Robin Murphy, were featured in interviews by Austin affiliate KVUE and Houston KHOU.

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.”

FAA Small UAS rules: impact unclear on emergency response agencies

Yesterday the FAA released their proposed rules for small UAS. The summary focuses on the impact on commercial industry with the implication that emergency response agencies will continue to have to function under the “old” rules of applying for COAs even for class G space. I will be reading through the entire document (it’s 159 pages) in the next couple of days to see what the real impact is.

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…