Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

Washington State Mudslides Highlight Challenges for Ground and Aerial Rescue Robots

All of our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, families, and responders. 

I am already being asked about how robots could be used for the horrific mudslides in Washington State. 

To the best of my knowledge, robots have been used only once for a mudslide. That was the CRASAR deployment in 2005 for the La Conchita, California, mudslides which provided unmanned ground vehicles at the request of Ventura County Fire Rescue and Los Angeles County Fire Rescue. Direct victims of mudslides and avalanches rarely have survivors because the ground and snow acts like a fluid displaying the oxygen, leading to suffocation. Victims of collateral damage have a better chance of survivor. CRASAR was called in to help search the crushed houses for missing neighbors; as detailed in Disaster Robotics, the small ground robots didn’t get far in the gooey mud. 

A major challenge for a slide or avalanche is that the robot needs to burrow through a “granular space.” Instead of going through a hole where the hole is at least as big as the robot, the robot needs to go through a space where the holes are smaller than the robot. There’s some interesting research that Dan Goldberg at Georgia Tech, Howie Choset at CMU and I have proposed on exploiting Dan’s work with robots that mimic sandfish, Howie’s miniature snakes for granular spaces but we’ve yet to hit on funding. 

Small UAVs could play a beneficial role. Certainly having the first responder on the scene driving down the road to the slide could able to get a quick overview of how far it extended. At La Conchita we had seen the possibility of small UAS dropping sensors in the slide that could be remotely monitored rather than sending geologists to periodically climb up the slide to make measurements. 

However, the pictures in the news of manned helicopters to airlift out survivors illustrates why air space coordination is a disaster remains a must and why civilians robot enthusiasts shouldn’t fly without permission, like the person filming the Harlem building collapse. The manned helicopters are working in the same under 400ft elevation that many small UAS companies advertise that their systems work in. It is important to remember that if a civilian flies in the airspace over a disaster, their AMA insurance is void (assuming they have insurance) and  regardless they may be subject to legal action. Worse yet, a manned helicopter conducting an airlift has to abort the mission if an unaccounted for vehicle enters their area of operation and thus could cost a victim their life. 

Nature’s Fury Challenge FIRST Lego League teams compete in robotics challenge

Students this year had to program a robot that would handle natural disaster situations with a theme of nature’s fury. Two local teams represented the SPR Robotics group in Annapolis. Team F.I.R.E (Flaming Intelligent Robotic Engineers) chose wildfires, and Team E.W.O.K.S. (Engineers Working on Killah’ Solutions) chose hurricanes as their targeted natural disaster. The kids designed, built and programmed their own Lego Mindstorm Robots to compete in games and obstacle courses.

Here is the full article at
Here is an article from one of the teams at

DARPA Official: Human-Robot Teams Key to Disaster Response

Dr. Gill Pratt wrote in the January-February edition of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “Over a period of less than three years,DARPA expects the field of robotics to undergo a historic transformation that could drive innovation in robots for defense, health care, agriculture and industry.”

This advancement is in part because of the DARPA Robotics Challenge which has under gone two of the three competitions. The final will be coming up soon and Pratt says the plan is to make the tasks more difficult and more authentic than they were in the trials.“My thought right now, and this is subject to change,” Pratt added, “is [to] take the eight different tasks we had as separate events in the trials and … combine them into an integrated task where the robot has to respond to a situation,” chaining together capabilities it demonstrated in the trials.

This final event will help show that robots can be used in the field of disasters,but the technology still won’t be quite ready for commercialization.“The technology will be ready for commercialization if a market can be found in the commercial world for it,” Pratt said. “What many people don’t realize is that the defense market is a very small fraction of the size of the commercial market.”

He added, “After we show the feasibility of things, after we provide the spark to start it, then we need to enter a phase where the costs get driven down. And the commercial world typically is very, very good for that.”

Check out the full article at

Flying Jellyfish-Like Machine Conceptualizes How Tiny Future Surveillance Robots Can Move

Researchers at New York University have taken cues from the aerodynamics of jellyfish to develop a tiny machine that can fly in a way that resembles the movements of the boneless, ocean-dwelling creatures. This unique flying style will allow great movability in small spaces and could be a great addition to any search and rescue arsenal.
Here is the link to the full article at International Business Times.

Robotena the Nurse Robot Transport Will Go Where Emergency Care Can’t

Robotena (, a “nurse robot” which will be able to transport bodies away from the sniper towards a field medic. This robot could be used in Syria, where snipers becoming more and more ruthless and many people are afraid to go near wounded victims for fear of being the next target. One difference is that this robot will be huge, enabling it to protect a victim from further bullets within its metal body.
Here is the link to the full article at Robotics Trends

FIRST(r) LEGO(r) League (FLL(r)) Nature’s Fury(sm) Challenge: International experts are ready to answer your questions and provide feedback

FLLicon_RGB Natures Fury Logo SM










Volunteers from the IEEE Technical Committee on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics are available to answer  your questions and provide feedback on your challenge projects! They are listed below, please contact them directly. Please don’t post to the comments section- it won’t necessarily get to the right expert!


Prof. Gerald Steinbauer <steinbauer AT>, Graz University of Technology, is an expert in robot navigation


Dr. Ahmad Byagowi <ahmadexp AT>, University of Manitoba, is an expert on humanoid robotics

Prof. Alexander Ferworn <aferworn AT>, Ryerson University, is an expert on human-canine-robot teams

United States

Prof. Julie A. Adams <julie.a.adams AT>, Vanderbilt University, is an expert on human-robot interaction

Prof. Howie Choset <choset AT>, Carnegie Mellon University, is an expert on snake robotics and navigation

Justin Manzo <manzo_justin AT>, Booz Allan and Hamilton, a robotics practitioner assisting with the DARPA Robotics Challenge

Prof. Robin Murphy <murphy AT>; Texas A&M, is an expert on deploying land, sea, and aerial robots and is willing to host demos

Brian O’Neil <aviator79 AT>, a researcher near Los Alamos, NM, who has worked with FIRST teams before

Debra Schreckenghost <schreck AT>; TRAClabs is one of the teams in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and willing to host demos

Prof. Dylan Shell < AT>; Texas A&M, is an expert on multiple robots

Disaster In Latvia As Store’s Roof Collapses, Killing Dozens

The view from above is chilling at the scene of a disaster in a suburb of the Latvian capital of Riga, where the roof of a supermarket collapsed Thursday evening. The reported death toll is at 30 and could rise.
Here is a link to the article at NPR.

GimBall: The flying robot that navagates by crashing

Introducing GimBall — a spherical flying robot encased in a flexible cage, which allows it to happily smash into surfaces while navigating disaster sites. This technology would be very helpful in searching a disaster area where there is a large amount of debris.
Here is a link to the full article at CNN.

UAVs and the Moore Tornado: response to CNN blog

CNN has a nice blog post on the UAVs that weren’t used at Moore.  Here are my comments:

Small UAVs have been used at 11 disasters internationally. The first use of small UAVs was in the US by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, which I direct, during Hurricane Katrina as part of the Florida State Emergency Response Team. We have been advising on the use and procedures for getting permissions for the tornado response, as flying even a small UAV requires coordination with the other activity- hence the no fly zone. The FAA has had an emergency COA process for years, though we find many agencies and industries are not aware of it. We are happy to assist agencies and industries in adopting and deploying unmanned systems of any kind.