How a Robotics Pioneer Uses A.I. to Enhance Rescue Bots

Here is a brief excerpt from an article paid for and reported by Texas A&M for the New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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At Texas A&M, Dr. Robin Murphy and her students are developing the next generation of disaster robots.

Each year, natural disasters kill tens of thousands of people and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses. For many communities, it takes decades to recover.

As these events become more frequent, devastating and deadly, scientists from various disciplines are stepping up their efforts to devise more effective ways to respond.

One method that’s undergoing a profound transformation is rescue robotics. Leading the charge is Robin Murphy, Ph.D., an award-winning computer scientist who directs Texas A&M’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at its College Station campus. Dr. Murphy also serves as the university’s Raytheon professor of computer science and engineering.

A pioneering rescue roboticist, Dr. Murphy has helped deploy air, sea and ground robots to 27 disasters in five countries during the last two decades, devising many of the field’s best practices through her research.

When she’s not helping first responders in disaster zones, Dr. Murphy can be found in the classroom, studying data collected from those operations. She then works with her undergraduate and graduate students at Texas A&M to apply artificial intelligence to the data so emergency managers can make faster decisions.

We recently sat down with Dr. Murphy to discuss the evolving use of rescue robots; Disaster City, Texas A&M’s on-campus robotics training facility; and A.I. robotics: the innovation that’s defining the future of rescue robots.

Left: A small ground robot. An earlier model was used at ground zero after Sept. 11 to enter spaces that human and canine searchers could not. Right: This small ground robot is designed to be thrown into buildings to give first responders a first look and act as a signal booster for larger robots.

[Here is the first Q&A.]

Why was Sept. 11 such an important event for rescue robotics?

Sept. 11, 2001, was the first reported use of a robot for any kind of disaster and CRASAR’s first deployment. At ground zero, CRASAR’s robots worked alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New York Fire Department to assess and search damaged buildings after the attacks. CRASAR’s robots helped locate at least 10 victims. It was proof by demonstration that these robots could actually be useful.

When we began operating the robots in the field during and after Sept. 11, we discovered that the major challenge wasn’t the robot, but, rather, the human-robot interaction. We found that the robots weren’t designed for people working in very stressful conditions and confined, deconstructed spaces. It was like trying to examine an obliterated space by looking through a soda straw. You didn’t have the sensory feedback that you’d normally have. Observing this was the big impetus to research human-robot interactions and grow that field.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


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