Living with Robots screened at Sundance

Honda’s short-film documentary, Living with Robots, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 22, 2010. Rescue robot footage from CRASAR and director Robin Murphy appear throughout the documentary.[youtube][/youtube]

Why New Technologies Rarely Show Up at Disasters

I’m getting a lot of questions about why wasn’t CRASAR, or any robotic technology, in Haiti. Interestingly, some of the questions indicate anger at agencies and while I thought CRASAR could have been of use in saving lives and learned important lessons for science, I’d like to defend the decision not to invite us.

It is always a difficult call for an incident commander to bring in new technology that they have not trained with or has been shown definitely to work. A disaster is just that—it’s usually a surprise and by definition exceeds resources. So the command structure is busy just trying to do the regular things of getting traditional resources to the right place. And people under stress fall back to the things they are most comfortable with. Consider too, the individual responders are too tired and stressed to take on out new equipment (more things to lug around) even if they are familiar with it.  That’s why for the first 4 years following 9/11, I gave nearly a hundred talks to response agencies and participated in many exercises so that we could show the responders what the robots could do and get their comfort level up. We created a 2-hour awareness course and a 10 hour introductory course that responders could get continuing ed credits for. The role of giving responders hands-on time with robots has largely been taken over by NIST and their rescue robot standards program.

And remember most new equipment has terrible interfaces and ergonomics, so it is a true pain to use.  This means bringing trained operators to use the equipment on behalf of the responders adds to the logistics footprint- here’s a couple more people that aren’t on the official roster and have to be accounted for.  And the tech operators may have no experience or response training- and there are basic procedures and terminology that you need to know. The liability and logistics is just hard. It is way easier for the incident commander to just to say “no.” CRASAR is all about the technicians getting response training so we won’t be a burden or a liability.

Also keep in mind that disasters always bring out people who are well-intentioned but have no clue whatsoever. I have some horror stories from the Crandall Canyon Utah mine disaster so I can definitely sympathize with the incident commanders.  The fire service typically just says “no” based on past experiences because they don’t have time to get distracted with such things—so if they didn’t know you and felt comfortable with you before a disaster, you aren’t likely to get your foot in the door. Trying to pressure them just makes it worse for the rest of us.  The robots used at 9/11 were invited by the NY State and City emergency departments through the connections of Lois Clark McCoy at NIUSR, but the responders viewed them warily and did not take us to the field. John Blitch led a small group that used the robots on the first day but the second day when you couldn’t get to the site without being part of a tasked assignment, we just sat there. A guy from a major government lab in a suit was wandering around the Javits Center where all the response teams were housed talking about how great the lab’s sensors were. (Back up- A guy in a suit. At a disaster site. That certainly undermined any credibility that these guys had ever stepped outside of their lab, much less did rigorous field testing. ) Then suddenly the FEMA teams started asking for us to come with them- primarily because Chief Ron Rodgers (bless him!) at Florida Task Force 3 posted to a responder chat room that my group had worked with him in the field and the students and I had completed basic response training. We became known quantities.

There’s also a matter of scale. The incident command team is responsible for doing the most good for the most people. Will a couple (or even a hundred) of experimental technologies really make a difference and be worth the disruption to the already stressful way of doing things and additional personnel and logistics burden? Or is a more rational decision to focus on doing the basics?  That’s the incident command teams call and I respect that.

The point is not whether CRASAR participates in a disaster  but rather whether we are getting closer to the day when the responders routinely take the robots and other technologies that they own and operate to the incident- that’s our mission.

Haiti and Kobe, Japan

Haiti and Japan

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. The irony that I am in Kobe accepting the Motohiro Kisoi Award for Academic Contributions to rescue engineering instead of in Haiti does not escape me. There is always a gap between possibility and reality, but gaps about high definition TVs seem trivial compared to gaps in life saving and recovery.

Yesterday Ms. Ikuko Tanimura from the International Rescue Systems institute took me to the Hyogo Perfectural Emergency Management and Training Center and the full-scale earthquake testing facility at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention. Suffice it to say that the Japanese have the technology to shake entire 6 story buildings and bridges in three dimensions and understand collapses. Recently, they shook to pieces a wooden house and let the IRS researchers apply their technologies (I am so envious!) Dr. Akiko Yoshimura, an architect, designed a clever facility where teams can practice victim management in wet, confined spaces designed to tax the ergonomic constraints of responders. As I travel the world, I see so much good science, good ideas, good inventions!

The Japanese researchers from IRS are sanguine about progress and the time it takes to go from research to the field. IRS director Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro started what became IRS in 1995 in response to the Kobe earthquake and the loss of Motohiro Kisoi, a promising graduate student in his department. I also started in 1995, motivated by the Oklahoma City Bombing. The research directions Satoshi and I initiated back in those days are a little embarrassing in retrospect- we didn’t understand disasters and there was little data or experience base. Now as we’ve profited from being engaged in exercises and actual responses, being able to apply cognitive work analysis methods, and collect performance data on machines and people, the community is beginning to isolate and address more meaningful issues that will lead to truly useful technology that will be easy to use and maintain.

But as we discussed last night at the reception, good science isn’t sufficient to help a disaster like Haiti. We need industry to (cheaply) manufacture the devices, agencies and NGOs to accelerate adoption.

But what we really need are early adopters and caches all over the world, so that even it doesn’t take 3 days for response teams to bring in the sensors and robots (and comms and power), that the local responders can make the most of the critical 72 hours.

Haiti: Prayers and best wishes

The Haiti earthquake is looking grim. At this point CRASAR has not been contacted about assisting and is unlikely to be.  The two USAID teams, CA-TF2 and VA-TF1 , are being deployed. Reports suggest that there was a hospital collapse. In these large geographically distributed disasters, aerial assets (manned or unmanned) are helpful in establishing what is damaged, where people appear to be in the most danger or need, and whether roads are passable. Ground robots are helpful for large buildings, but, in general, dogs are the biggest help in finding victims in residential areas– dogs smell faster  much faster than the most agile robot can get in the rubble. Marine vehicles can be of value in inspecting sea walls and checking shipping channels. Let’s keep rooting for improvements to subsurface sensors and other equipment that can help the teams. Godspeed to CA-TF2 and VA-TF1! And all of Haiti is in our prayers!

Brazil Mudslide: rescue robots for mudslides

The sad news of the mudslide in Angra dos Reis, Brazil, brings up memories of our deployment to the 2005 La Conchita, California, mudslides. Rory Rehbeck, then a captain with LA County Fire Department, invited CRASAR out to assist Ventura County Fire Department. There really aren’t survivors of a mudslide- the mud is a liquid, penetrates like water, and covers everything. The best you can hope for is survivors from the collateral damage. The houses on the slope of La Conchita were either buried, squished as if inside a giant trash compacter, or untouched. We attempted to use the new Extreme robots we had purchased through a NSF grant to search some of the damaged houses as a family of 6 was still missing (they were on vacation) and the canines were giving some ambiguous hits.

Our journal article “Rescue robots for mudslides: A descriptive study of the 2005 La Conchita mudslide response” Journal of Field Robotics, vol 25 no 1-2 (Jan 2008) p 3-16  gives the details of what Sam Stover and I experienced: the robots did not do well in the mud and vegetation when we tried to go under a house to get in it nor work in deep shag carpeting when we entered another house through the garret window. See the Media Gallery for photos. But being there did identify the need for remote sensor networks dropped off by UAVs to continously monitor for further slides (geologists checking manually every 6-8 hours isn’t good enough)- sensor networks for advanced placement already exist, they just don’t get used. We’re looking forward to combining the UAV work here with Prof. Dez Song’s work in sensor networks.

The families in Brazil are in our prayers and hearts.