When disaster hits—whether it be the collapse of a parking garage or the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—rescuers today often turn to mini-robots to assess damage, locate survivors, and keep them alive during the long hours and days before the victims can be pulled out. The founder of the field that develops these creatures is Robin Murphy, a Texas A&M computer science professor who leads the university's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.
Among the tools Murphy's team has used are the commercially available Inuktun VGTV Extreme, a foot-long crawler whose tank-style caterpillar treads let it climb over and through rubble to deliver two-way audio to survivors. Her work helped produce the iSensys, a mini-helicopter that can both hover above wreckage looking for victims as well as fly up and down buildings, scanning for damage and people trapped inside. And then there's the Sea-RAI, which looks like a child's toy boat, but can be used to inspect structures in the water, like bridges, or serve as a launching pad for aerial robots.
Most of these devices don't look like much more than children's playthings—or at least models that a handy teenager might have tricked out. But for many, they make the difference between life and death. One of the advantages of their small size is that they can be easily transported to disaster scenes (the robots and their controllers often fit in a suitcase or two) and can be assembled and ready to go within hours. When the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, Murphy's robots were on site that day, and stuck around participating in search and rescue for the following month.
Murphy says she was inspired to start building robots for rescue while at the University of South Florida, after one of her graduate students helped in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. "At that point, artificial intelligence for robotics had been focusing on these small robots [and] sending dozens of them up to Mars," Murphy says. "It became so clear that those same small robots...instead of exploring outer space could be exploring under the rubble."
At USF, she founded the Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology, to integrate the work of researchers in computer science, health systems, networks, psychology, and sensors. Admirers often point to Murphy's multi-disciplinary thinking and her ability to bridge the divide between academics and responders in the field. "It's one thing to develop these tools and another thing to integrate them into the world of fire and law enforcement," the director of the Los Angeles emergency preparedness department told Time magazine. "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.'"