From Crawling to Swimming and Flying: The Evolution of Robots Aiding Disaster Recovery
When disaster strikes, lives need to be saved—and the quicker the response, the better the outcome. That’s why search and rescue teams are increasingly turning to robotics and autonomous technology, which work under conditions that are simply too dangerous for humans or rescue dogs.
Dr. Robin Murphy, vice-president of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), has overseen the deployment of rescue robots in around 30 major disasters, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the Miami condo collapse. Murphy, who spoke with Ground Truth, believes robots are critical to disaster response, calling them “the difference between life and death.” So important is their role in emergency rapid response that, as she told NBC News, “It’s now getting unethical not to use them.”
From the earliest robots developed in response to nuclear power disasters, to the tank-track-mounted crawlers lowered on ropes into the 9/11 ruins two decades ago, to the latest in drone technology deployed by rescuers after the Surfside condo tragedy, major advances have been made in disaster robotics.
The cases outlined here show how robots have been used in the recovery efforts following major disasters around the globe, and their evolution from crawling to swimming and flying.
Three Mile Island
Perhaps the earliest deployment of robots into places humans simply could not go was after the 1979 reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Dr. William L. “Red” Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor, gathered a team of roboticists to develop a robot that could enter Unit 2 of the plant, where radiation was too high for humans. Deployed in 1984, the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle, a tethered six-wheeled robot with hard-wired controls, was equipped with radiation detectors, lighting, and video cameras that gave operators visibility inside the flooded reactor building. A second robot, the Core Sampler, had drills for collecting samples of contaminated concrete walls for analysis.
The Three Mile Island tragedy saw robotics evolve from a tool for completing difficult and mundane manufacturing tasks into a solution for operating in hazardous environments without endangering humans. And it brought together roboticists who would later collaborate on autonomous vehicle technology: In 2007, Whittaker led CMU’s Tartan Racing team to victory in the DARPA Urban Challenge driverless car competition.
World Trade Center
The first use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in a search and rescue operation was at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“Bujold,” a small, wheeled robot running on tank-style tracks, equipped with lights and cameras, was used extensively to check for survivors in the ruins of the fallen towers. Although Bujold needed to be lowered in on a line, it was highly mobile and able to advance through the burning rubble. Tragically, Bujold did not locate any survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center, but played a crucial role in locating human remains.
More than 40 years after Three Mile Island–and three decades after Chernobyl, where response teams deployed robots designed and developed by the aforementioned Whittaker —much more sophisticated robots are playing a critical role in the still-ongoing cleanup of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor, which was destroyed in 2011 by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
Japan’s largest electric utility company, TEPCO, is using robots inside the power station for reconnaissance and research as part of a decontamination effort which, due to the high levels of radiation, could take decades to complete. Most of these remote-controlled robots are mounted on tank tracks, but engineers are also using four-legged walking robots in hard-to-reach areas. Perhaps the most significant breakthrough was made by Little Sunfish, an underwater robot equipped with cameras and lights, which located the radioactive fuel lost within the flooded nuclear power plant.
Mexico City earthquake
In 2017, after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City, emergency responders worked with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University’s Biorobotics Lab to search the rubble of a collapsed apartment block with their prototype multi-jointed snake-like robot. Equipped with lights and a camera providing a live video feed to rescue workers, responders sent the 16-section “Snakebot” through narrow gaps in the ruins to search for survivors. Thanks to the work of Snakebot, the rescue workers were able to declare the building empty, enabling workers to operate without fear of dislodging rubble that could injure other rescuers.
When the magnificent Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames in April 2019, it soon became apparent that firefighters would be at serious risk were the cathedral’s spire to collapse into the 856-year-old Gothic building. Enter Colossus, a “multi-purpose support robot for operations in high-risk areas” developed by Shark Robotics in partnership with the Paris fire brigade.
Weighing in at around 1,100 pounds, Colossus is claimed by Shark Robotics to be the most powerful electrical robot in the world. It can climb stairs and carry half a ton of weight. It is capable of 12-hour operations, heat resistant to 1,600°F, and equipped with an advanced thermometer and sensors that can detect chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials. Thanks to its ability to carry heavy hoses, Colossus was instrumental in extinguishing the Notre-Dame fire, and despite the severe damage to the cathedral, fulfilled its primary purpose: to keep firefighters safe.
Miami condo collapse
Unmanned aerial systems, or drones, were critical for rescue workers after the tragic June 24 collapse of the Surfside, Miami condominium, which claimed 98 lives.
First deployed effectively by responders after Hurricane Harvey, drones were in constant use at Surfside. Fitted with spotlights, thermal imagers, and cameras for stills and video, they enabled the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department to check for survivors and assess upper floors of the remaining parts of the building.
Highly detailed digital mapping of the 2.6-acre disaster area was made possible by piecing together multiple high-resolution drone photos to create orthomosaic maps, and 3D models were generated by combining these maps with lidar scans of the site captured by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s RAPID team.
Before the remaining portion of the tower was demolished on July 4, drones were flown into the building to search for pets, and to recover residents’ documents and valuables. With over 300 missions flown, this was the widest use of unmanned aerial systems to date in post-disaster operations. Giving rescue workers not just an eye in the sky, but a presence in many otherwise inaccessible areas of a disaster zone, drone use in disaster robotics is no longer new—it’s the new normal.
Where next for disaster robotics?
In almost all disaster scenarios, Dr. Murphy tells Ground Truth, one of the main problems is data management. She points out that the ability to upload or download vast amounts of data is not a luxury enjoyed by emergency workers, who often work against the clock, almost always with poor data connections, limited bandwidth, and dated devices. “We therefore need to identify and prioritize information to avoid overwhelming the networks,” she says.
For unmanned aerial systems, the top of Murphy’s wish-list is 360-degree perception, giving drone operators the ability to look up and down. “At the moment, when I’m flying under a bridge, I can’t see much of what’s directly above or below,” she says. As for underwater robots, Murphy says she’s excited about the potential to equip them with acoustic imaging sonar technology. “And it would be great to have 3D visualization.”
Ultimately, says Murphy, disaster robotics development must “focus on solutions that are easy to use, and do things better and faster than humans. We need to decide, what parts do we really need to automate?”
Disasters remain an inevitability, and—in addition to events caused directly by human activity—the realities of increasingly extreme weather have potential to cause a rise in their frequency. But the major advances in robotics offer an additional tool for first responders, as they continually face down the worst that mother nature can throw at them.