Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

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

Summary of 47 Known Disaster Robot Deployments 2001-2015


This is a 15 minute talk I gave (virtually) at the World Engineering Conference and United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk and Reduction in Japan. It was a talk for a general audience and while there is nothing new, it does provides

  • an introduction to disaster robotics,
  • how many times and where robots have been used,
  • what they have been used for (and what they could be used for), why they aren’t used more frequently, and
  • my recommendations.

Much of the material is captured in detail in Disaster Robotics, MIT Press.

Why It is Unethical NOT to Use Robots for Disasters

robot revolutionI was a panelist on The Robot Revolution panel held by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in conjunction with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (and the fantastic exhibit Robot Revolution!) You can see the panel at the YouTube clip here

What struck me was the focus on the ethics of robotics: were they safe? what about weaponization? they are going to take away jobs? Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking say they are dangerous, and so on.

I believe that it is unethical not to use existing (and rapidly improving) unmanned systems for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. The fear of some futuristic version of artificial intelligence is like having discovered penicillin but saying “wait, what if it mutates and eventually leads to penicillin resistant bacteria a 100 years from now” and then starting an unending set of committees and standards processes. Unmanned systems are tools like fire trucks, ambulances, and safety gear.

Here are just three of the reasons why I believe it is unethical not to use unmanned systems for all aspects of emergency management. These came up when I was being interviewed by TIME Magazine as an Agent of Change for Hyundai (but don’t blame them)!

1. Robots speed up disaster response. The logarithmic heuristic developed by Haas, Kates, and Bowden in 1977 posits that reducing the duration of each phase of disaster response reduces the duration of the next phase by a factor of 10. Thus, reducing the initial response phase by just 1 day reduces the overall time through the three reconstruction phases to complete recovery by up to 1,000 days (or 3 years). Think of what that means in terms of lives saved, people not incurring additional health problems, and the resilience of the economy. While social scientists argue with the exact numbers and phases in the Haas, Kates, and Bowden work, it still generally works. If the emergency responders finish up life-saving, rescues, and mitigation, faster  then recovery groups can enter the affected region and restore utilities, repairs roads, etc.

At the 2011 Tokoku tsunami, we used unmanned marine vehicles to reopen a fishing port that was central to the economy of the prefecture in 4 hours. It was going to take manual divers 2 weeks to manually cover the same area- but more than 6 months before divers could be schedule to do the inspection. That would have caused the fishing cooperatives to miss the salmon season- which was the center of their economy.

At the 2014 Oso Mudslides, we used UAVs to provide ESF3 Public Works with geological and hydrological data in 7 hours that would normally take 2-4 days to get from satellites and was higher resolution than satellites and better angles than what could have been gotten from manned helicopters– if the helicopters could have safely flown those missions. The data was critical in determining how to protect the responders from additional slide and flooding, protecting residents and property who had not (yet) been affected,  and mitigating damage to salmon fishing.

2. Land, sea, and aerial robots have already been used since 2001. By my count, unmanned systems have been used in at least 47 disasters in 15 countries. It’s not like these are new technologies. Sure, they are imperfect (I’ve never met a robot that I couldn’t think of something that would make it better), but they are not going to get any better for emergency response until professionals have them and can use them- there has to be a market and then market pressure/competition can drive useful advances!

3. Robots can prevent disasters. Consider this: The US has an aging infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1 in 9 bridges are structurally deficient. And transportation departments don’t have cost-effective ways to inspect bridges, especially the underwater portions. Remember the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota? Minnesota apparently is one of the top states in keeping up with bridge inspections but only 85% of their bridges are compliant with Federal standards on inspection. That doesn’t bode well for them- or the rest of us. We need unmanned systems that can work cost-effectively, 24/7 and in places inspectors can’t go, or can’t go quickly or safely enough.






Common UAV Software May Not (Yet) Be Reliable for Building Safety or Damage Assessment

Reconstruction exhibiting all four types of anomalies

Sample reconstruction exhibiting all four types of anomalies

(Note: there is lots of great work going on worldwide and we look forward to working with all companies and researchers to help improve this vital technology)

Researchers at Texas A&M and University of Nebraska-Lincoln have found that popular software packages for creating photo mosaics of disasters from imagery taken by small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may contain anomalies that prevent its use for reliably determining if a building is safe to enter or estimating the cost of damage. Small unmanned aerial systems can enable responders to collect imagery faster, cheaper, and at higher resolutions than from satellites or manned aircraft. While software packages are continuously improving, users need to be aware that current versions may not produce reliable results for all situations. The report is a step towards understanding the value of small unmanned aerial systems during the time- and resource-critical initial response phase.

“In general, responders and agencies are using a wide variety of general purpose small UAS such as fixed-wings or

quadrotors and then running the images through the software to get high resolution mosaics of the area. But the current state of the software suggests that they may not get always the reliability that they expect or need,” said Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the director of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and the research supervisor of the study.  “The alternative is to purchase small UAVs explicitly designed for photogrammetric data collection, which means agencies might have to buy a second general purpose UAV to handle the other missions. We’d like to encourage photogrammetric software development to continue to make advances in working with any set of geo-tagged images and being easier to tune and configure.”

In a late breaking report (see SSRR2015 LBR sarmiento duncan murphy ) released at the 13th annual IEEE International Symposium on Safety Security and Rescue Robotics held at Purdue University, researchers presented results showing that two different photogrammetric packages produced an average of 36 anomalies, or errors, per flight.  The researchers identified four types of anomalies impacting damage assessment and structural inspection in general.  Until this study, it does not appear that glitches or anomalies had been systematically characterized or discussed in terms of the impact on decision-making for disasters.  The team of researchers consisted of Traci Sarmiento, a PhD student at Texas A&M, Dr. Brittany Duncan an assistant professor at University of Nebraska- Lincoln who participated while a PhD student at Texas A&M, and Dr. Murphy.

The team applied two packages, Agisoft Photoscan, a standard industrial system, and Microsoft ICE, a popular free software package to the same set of imagery. Both software packages combine hundreds of images into a single high resolution image. They have been used for precision agriculture, pipeline inspection, and amateur photography and are now beginning to be used for structural inspection and disaster damage assessment. The dimensions and distances between objects in the image can be accurately measured within 4cm.  However, the objects themselves may have glitches or anomalies. created through the reconstruction process, making it difficult to tell if the object is seriously damaged.

The researchers collected images using an AirRobot 180, a quadrotor used by the US and Germany military, flying over seven disaster props representing different types of building collapses, a train derailment, and rubble at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Disaster City®. The team flew five flights over 6 months. The resulting images for each of the five flights were processed with both packages, then inspected for anomalies using the four categories.

Robots for earthquakes- history of use of ground, aerial, and marine systems plus best practices

Our hearts go out to the victims, families, and responders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here are links to

And from our home page, here are helpful 1 page guides and best practices for small unmanned aerial systems that have been incorporated into United Nations humanitarian standards and are continuing to evolve:

Texas Floods: How small UAVs have been used at 9 floods in 6 countries. Don’t forget about UMVs!

Note: this is a long blog with sections on best practices, where SUAS have been used (and for what missions), the flood of data that interferes with making the most of UAS data and how computer vision can help, and unmanned marine vehicles.

CRASAR is standing by to assist with the flooding in Texas with small unmanned aerial systems (UAS/UAV) and unmanned marine vehicles. Johnny Cash’s song “How High The Water Momma” comes to mind. We’ve been working with floods since 2005 and in July offered a class on flying for floods.

The rain is still too heavy to fly in most affected parts. Coitt Kessler, Austin Fire Department, is coordinating the use of small UAS with the State Operations Center and has been working tirelessly since Thursday. CRASAR is offering the Texas A&M team and the UAVRG team at no cost through the Roboticists Without Borders program. We also hope to try out an app of coordinating small UAS from the newest member of Roboticists Without Borders, Akum.

Hey- If you want to volunteer to fly, please do not fly with out explicitly coordinating with your local fire department and confirming that they in turn have followed standard procedures and coordinated with the state air operations (this is a standard ICS practice and should only take them a few minutes), otherwise there may be a repeat of the dangerous situation where  a) low flying helicopters and SUAS are working too close to each other and b) the data collected was either the wrong data or never made it to a decision maker.  Dangerous situations happened at the Boulder floods and several times in the Texas Memorial Day floods- it shuts down the helicopter operations.  And remember, it hards to become the fire rescue equivalent of a deputy without have met and worked with the fire rescue department- so it may not be realistic to expect to help with this disaster.

Best Practices

Here are links to our best practices for picking UAVs and payloads for disasters:

Where Small UAVs Have Been Used

Small UAVs or UAS have been used at least 9 disasters from flooding or had flooding associated with it: Hurricane Katrina 2005 (the first ever use of a small UAS for a disaster, which was by CRASAR), Typhoon Morakot, Taiwan 2009, Thailand Floods 2011, Typhoon Haiyan Philippines 2013, Boulder Colorado floods 2013, Oso Washington Mudslides 2014, Balkans flooding Serbia 2014, Cyclone Pamela Vanuatu 2014, and the Texas Memorial Day Floods 2015.  CRASAR participated in 3 of the 9 events.

SUAS missions at these floods have been:

  • situation awareness of the flood, affected transportation, and person in distress
  • hydrological assessment- where’s the flooding, state of levees, etc.? Texas has levees that impact people (think New Orleans and Katrina) but also livestock. Another use of small UAS is to determine why the floods are flooding where they are. In the Balkans flooding, the ICARUS team used their UAS and found a illegal dike that was preventing public works engineers from draining the area.
  • searching for missing persons presumably swept away- that was the major use of small UAS at the Texas Memorial Day floods
  • deliver a small line to persons in distress so that they can pull up a heavier line for help- this was also done at the Texas Memorial Day floods
  • debris estimation in order to speed recovery

SUAS proposed, but never flown to the best of my knowledge at an actual disaster (remember a patch to anyone who can help me keep the list of deployments up to date!), missions have been:

  • home owner and business insurance claims- many insurance carriers are actively exploring this and this was a big topic with at our 2015 Summer Institute on Flooding
  • carry wireless repeaters—this was actually done with manned aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol during the Memorial Day floods. The greater persistence and distance may keep that in the CAP list of responsibilities

The Flood of Data and the Promise of Computer Vision

The biggest challenge in using UAS is not flying (or regulations) but rather the flood of data. As I noted in my blog on our Summer Institute on flooding, one of our 20-minute UAS flights for the Texas Memorial Day floods produced roughly over 800 images totaling 1.7GB. There were over a dozen platforms flying daily for two weeks during the floods as well as Civil Air Patrol and satellite imagery. Most of the imagery was being used to search for missing persons, which means each image has to be inspected manually by at least (preferably more). Signs of missing persons are hard to see, as there may be only a few pixels of clothing (victims may be covered in mud or obscured by vegetation and debris) or urban debris (as in, if you see parts of a house, there may be the occupant of the house somewhere in the image). Given the multiple agencies and tools, it was hard to pinpoint what data has been collected when (i.e., spatial and temporal complexity) and then access the data by area or time. Essentially no one knew what they had.  Agencies and insurance companies had to manually sort through news feeds and public postings, both text and images, to find nuggets of relevant information.

Students from our NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates on Computing for Disasters and our partners at the University of Maryland and Berkeley led by Prof. Larry Davis created computer vision and machine learning apps during the Texas floods. The apps searched the imagery for signs of missing persons, including debris that might have been washed away with them and piles of debris large enough to contain a victim. The students also created visualization packages to show where the UAS and other assets had been and what data they had collected.

Don’t Forget About Unmanned Marine Vehicles

As I described in a previous blog on Hurricane Patricia, unmanned marine vehicles have been used for hurricane storm surges but not for flooding. They would be of great benefit for inspecting underwater portions of critical infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines. There’s even EMILY a robot super floatation device that can zoom out to where people are trapped.



Four Surprises about the Use of Unmanned Ground, Aerial, and Marine Vehicles for Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones

Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones form a category of meteorological events referred to as cyclonic activity.  They damage large areas and destroy the transportation infrastructure, interfering with the ability of agencies to find and assist people in distress, restore power, water, and communications, and prevent the delivery of supplies. As I describe in my TED talk, it can take years for a community to recover- the rule of thumb developed by disaster experts Haas, Kates, and Bowden in 1982 is that reducing the duration of each phase of disaster response reduces the duration of the next phase by a factor of 10. Thus, reducing the initial response phase by just 1 day reduces the overall time through the three reconstruction phases to complete recovery by up to 1,000 days. The sooner emergency response agencies can use unmanned systems, the faster they can respond and we can recover from a disaster.

There are three modes or types of small unmanned vehicles or robots: ground, aerial, and marine systems. Small vehicles have the advantage that they are easy to carry in an SUV or a backpack and deploy on demand when the field teams need them, which the military would call a tactical assets. Larger unmanned systems such as the National Guard flying a Predator to help get situation awareness of several counties or provinces requires much more coordination and planning (and expense); these are strategic assets.

Here are four surprises about small unmanned vehicles for cyclonic events (I’ll be adding links to videos through out the day):

1. Small unmanned ground, aerial, and marine systems have been reported at 7 hurricanes since the first use at Hurricane Charley in 2004.

These events are Hurricane Charley (USA, 2004), Hurricane Katrina (USA, 2005), Hurricane Wilma (USA, 2005), Hurricane Ike (USA, 2008), Typhoon Morakot (Taiwan, 2009), Typhoon Haiyan (Philippines, 2013), and Cylone Pam (Vanuatu, 2015).

2. Ground robots are generally not useful.

Ground robots have only be used at 2 of the 7 events: Charley and Katrina. Cyclonic activity tends to damage or destroy swaths of single story family dwellings, not multi-story commercial buildings. If houses are flattened, the debris is not more than 20 feet deep, so traditional techniques work. If houses or apartments are damaged but standing and there is a concern that people are hurt inside, canines can determine in seconds if a person is inside. A door or window would have to be breached to insert a robot (or a person), which means the apartment would then be open to robbers. We learned that while helping Florida Task Force 3 search the retirement communities in Florida affected by Hurricane Charley in 2004. Florida Task Force 3 did use a robot to enter two apartment buildings that were too dangerously damage to enter during Hurricane Katrina, but they didn’t have a canine team which is now generally considered the preferred method.

3. Marine vehicles may be the most useful kind of robot for both response and recovery.

AEOS-1 with accoustic imager inspecting underwater portion of bridge

AEOS-1 with accoustic imager inspecting underwater portion of bridge

Marine vehicles have been used for only 2 of the events, Hurricane Wilma and Hurricane Ike, but could have been effective for all 7. Hurricanes and Typhoons are a double whammy for marine infrastructure- the underwater portion of bridges, seawalls, pipelines, power grid, and ports. First the event creates storm surges along the coast, then flooding occurs inland and hits the coast again.  Bridges and ports can appear to be safe but the surge and flooding can have scoured the ground from under the pilings, leaving them resting on nothing. Debris can have broken off a piling underwater, creating a hanging pile. This means that transportation routes can be cut off during the response, hampering the movement of responders but also hampering bringing in enough food and supplies to feed a country, such as at the Haiti earthquake, which is normally done with ships.  The economy can’t recover until the infrastructure is back in place.

Checking for these conditions is typically done with manual divers but the conditions are dangerous- the current is still high, the water is cloudy and debris is floating everywhere, and divers often have to resort to feeling for damage. There are few divers and it can take months to schedule them, as we saw at the Tohoku tsunami. Marine vehicles, both underwater and on the surface, can be outfitted with acoustic imagers that act as a combination of ultrasound and a camera to check for these conditions. In Japan, we re-opened a port in 4 hours versus weeks by a dive team, and dive teams would not be able to start work for six months after the disaster. The six month delay would have caused the city to miss the salmon fishing season, which is the big economic driver for the region.

See UMV and UAV at Hurricane Wilma here.

4. Small unmanned aerial systems have been used the most frequently of the three types of robots.

SUAS have been used in all but two of the 7 events, Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Ike. Small UAS were still experimental in 2004 when Hurricane Charley occurred but the next day after our experiences as part of Florida Task Force 3, I called Mike Tamilow at FEMA and offer to make introductions to facilitate use for the next hurricane. Unfortunately it wasn’t until next year and several hurricanes later that SUAS were used for Katrina by us and other teams from the Department of Defense. Despite the success of these deployments, SUAS didn’t really take off (pun intended) until 2011 when the technology had matured and come down in price.