By Tim Schnettler
It is an all too familiar sight after tragedies such as earthquakes, hurricanes or mudslides: people furiously digging through the rubble in the hopes of locating survivors.
A similar scene drove Robin Murphy into rescue robotics. Murphy is a professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR).
It was 1995, and having watched news reports on both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Kobe City earthquake, Murphy — who had conducted her Ph.D. research in robotics — decided it was time to focus her work on rescue robotics.
“Rescue robotics was strictly an emotional response,” says Murphy, the Raytheon Professor in the Dwight Look College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “Artificial intelligence for robotics had been focusing on small robots with the thought of sending dozens of them up to Mars.”
It then became so clear to her that those same robots could be exploring under the rubble of a disaster and helping find victims.
“At some point I thought, I could be one of 200 people doing planetary robots, I could be one of 200 people doing health care, but somebody needs to step up and do this idea of rescue robotics.”
And that is exactly what Murphy did. Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, she seized it and immersed herself in rescue robotics, a field where she has become an international leader and one of the few women involved.
A Rarity In Her Field
Robotics, and even more so rescue robotics, is dominated by men. And when Murphy is on the site of a disaster, she is usually the only woman.
“At Crandall Canyon Utah, the 2007 mine collapse, I think there were 40 guys on this mountain and we were a two-hour drive from anything,” Murphy says. “We were way up in the mountains, and I was the only woman.”
But Murphy’s work is starting to open the eyes of young women, helping them to realize that they too can break into the male-dominated field. An April 2010 episode of the PBS show SciGirls titled “Robots to the Rescue” featured Murphy, a female graduate student and four junior high girls.
The show, which is aimed at getting young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math, had the girls work with Murphy and her team to develop a personality for a rescue robot.
“It is a real exciting thing for me to be considered a mentor,” Murphy says. “I think it is that big moment when you realize, ‘I’ve got something to offer these young women.’ Between robotics and search and rescue, there are just not a lot of women.”
From the Beginning
Robotics, much less rescue robotics, wasn’t always on the radar for Murphy. When she was a youngster, the big question was whether she would become a nuclear physicist or a mechanical engineer like her father. Although she didn’t know which field of engineering she would choose, she was sure engineering was the discipline she would study.
“My dad was a mechanical engineer,” she says. “I was an only child, so I was my dad’s only son. Of course I was going to be an engineer; I always wanted to be.”
Murphy made the choice to follow her father’s profession, earning her undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech in mechanical engineering. When it came time to pursue her graduate degree, Murphy went another route, electing to get her Ph.D. in computer science, also from Georgia Tech, after working in industry for several years.
During her work toward the graduate degree, she became interested in artificial intelligence (AI) — despite initially thinking the field was a joke.
“When I went to grad school in computer science, I had a fellowship that required me to work with somebody in computer science that was a member of the Computer Integrated Manufacturing program,” Murphy says. “There was a new guy who did artificial intelligence for robots, and I believed that was totally ludicrous. But I needed a mentor.
“I thought AI was a joke and the robots you see for manufacturing that I was exposed to from mechanical engineering were very stupid and you would never use them for anything interesting. Of course I was wrong.
“Within a month I fell in love with AI — making things smarter, duplicating some of the wonderful things we know about biological intelligence, combining that with the differences of silicon-based systems. I just totally fell in love with it and never looked back.”
Getting Her Start
After completing her Ph.D., Murphy joined the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. The major focus at the School of Mines was on planetary robots because of ties to Colorado’s space community.
Murphy fell in line and was working in the field of planetary robots, but the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City shifted her focus. She says she realized the same small, rugged, agile and lightweight robots being proposed for Mars could be used to dive into the rubble where rescuers could not go.
The switch in focus carried risks because administrators and AI researchers viewed rescue robotics the way most people view robots — futuristic and too hard to be practical. Undeterred, Murphy made the drastic switch, beginning what would turn into a pioneering career.
With a change in focus came a change in universities as well. Murphy moved to the University of South Florida, where she was encouraged to devote herself to the fledgling field of rescue robotics despite skepticism from traditional AI researchers. Murphy and her students were mentored by Florida Task Force 3 starting in 1999 and eventually became technical search specialists.
While at South Florida, Murphy participated in an event that is still special to her — the response to the collapse of the World Trade Center. Ten days earlier, a former graduate student and Defense Advanced Research Program Agency program manager had founded CRASAR. When the planes struck, he and Murphy began coordinating CRASAR’s first mission: how to get robots to assist in finding the black boxes from the planes.
Then the buildings collapsed and getting the robots to New York to assist in searching the rubble became even more urgent. By noon, Murphy had packed her husband’s new van with robots, batteries, tools and three graduate students. Following the New York State Emergency Office’s invitation, she drove to New York City and met with other members of the CRASAR team.
In many ways it is so hard to describe 9/11 if you were not there,” Murphy says. “The interesting thing was we knew at the time that it was going to be the Pearl Harbor for our generation.
“What we really didn’t understand was how significant it was going to be for rescue robots. We knew it was going to be the first time rescue robots had ever been used for any disaster anywhere that’s been recorded.”
The utility of small robots to penetrate deep in the rubble in voids too small or too hot for search dogs or people was a major surprise to the Japanese robotics community, which had favored larger, more construction-like robots that could remove the rubble. The robots also gained added credibility for their use in Afghanistan by the U.S. Department of Defense.
A New Type of Robot
The World Trade Center disaster has had a lasting effect on rescue robotics, serving as a learning experience for those involved and helping them to fine-tune the robots being used, as well as making the robots more friendly and comforting to victims.
One such robot, “Survivor Buddy,” is Murphy’s pet project, and her efforts are paramount in the creation of what is considered the first robot built specifically for interacting with a trapped victim waiting to be extricated.
“The Survivor Buddy project has its roots in 9/11,” Murphy says. “For several years we had been discussing how we would use the robots to find survivors. As we were driving up there, we realized we hadn’t gotten beyond that point: What would we do if we found one? That persisted with us, and we started looking at things like a protocol.”
They also began to look at the physical attributes of the robots, everything from their color to the amount of noise they make.
“Most rescue robots, or robots that get sold for these things, are black and loud,” Murphy says.
Also, most victims would be in the dark, and having something with bright lights coming at them would more than likely add to their panic or fear. This concern was confirmed when Murphy and her colleagues took turns playing victims in test runs, and later by a Ph.D. thesis she directed.
“As we took turns being victims, we realized the robots were scary,” Murphy says.
So Murphy and her colleagues at Stanford University set out to design a robot that would not only be able to find victims but also help to comfort survivors as they waited for rescuers to reach them.
“Whenever you have an MRI, they give you your choice of music, anything to keep you comforted and from being bored,” Murphy says. “Not only can we do two-way audio, but we can do full Web streaming. You can watch your favorite TV show; you can talk to your friends. You can do whatever. Why not make it two-way video and streaming Web services?
“We pitched this to Microsoft as part of its initiative on how to use the Web and Web-enabled robots, and they loved it. We called the project the ‘Survivor Buddy’ because it was going to be your buddy. The National Science Foundation has since picked up the project, as it offers real insight into eldercare and other situations where you might be using the robot as your connection with the larger world.”
Popular Science also gave Survivor Buddy a “Best 100 of 2009” award.
In 2008, Murphy, along with CRASAR, moved to Texas A&M, in what could be considered a coup for the university. The move allowed Murphy to take full advantage of Disaster City, a 52-acre training facility created by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), an agency in The Texas A&M University System. TEEX delivers the full array of skills and techniques needed by emergency response professionals and a large staff that includes state and federal response teams and instructors.
The facility, which is a mock community, features full-scale, collapsible structures, offering Murphy the perfect setting to test her rescue robots. Murphy also pointed to the people of Texas A&M as another reason for her move to College Station.
“The facilities here are incredible,” Murphy says. “But better yet, we have real users with a true spirit of collaboration. This is a group of people on campus and at TEEX working on emergency informatics that really wants to work together. Already, we’re in the finals for an $18 million NSF Engineering Research Center on our first try.
“Texas A&M is a wonderful place, and I can do more here in the next 10 years than I can do in 20 years in any other place in the United States, actually the world.”
Dr. Robin R. Murphy
Raytheon Professor in Computer Science
Computer Science and Engineering