Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2004

Rescuer by Remote

Robin Murphy
Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Robin Murphy was on the scene with a team of robots to help sort through the debris. It was the first real-world test of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue in Tampa, Fla., the only unit of its kind on the planet. Rescue workers at ground zero, accustomed to using trained dogs and cameras mounted on poles to look for survivors and human remains and test for structural weaknesses, soon saw the advantage of cyberhelpers. "Search cams typically penetrate only 18 ft., and the heat was melting the heads off some of them," says Murphy, 46, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida. "Our robots are able to go 60 ft. through rubble that's still on fire."

Murphy, who has a Ph.D. in robotics from Georgia Tech, saw an opportunity to focus her research when one of her students returned from working in the search-and-rescue operation at the Oklahoma City bombing site in 1995. "Everybody says robots can save lives and make the world a better place," she notes. "It was clear then that it was time to put up or shut up." Her work led to the first robots built specifically for the task, to be released in the next year by American Standard Robotics and the Northrop Grumman subsidiary Remotec. The robots are expected to be able to gather data by themselves so that operators can focus on the emergency at hand.

"It's one thing to develop these tools and another thing to integrate them into the world of fire and law enforcement," says Ellis Stanley, director of the Los Angeles emergency preparedness department. "Robin is working to establish a relationship with rescue workers so that when the technology arrives on the scene, they don't say, 'What is this?' They say, 'Let's get to work.'"