Thursday, November 20, 2008

Practical applications for response robots

Imagine this situation: You are a first responder and you arrive at the scene of a building that has collapsed. You know the building is a warehouse that stores hazardous materials. You also know that it is the middle of the work day, so there may be people trapped inside. Would you rather spend the time putting on level-A suits and setting up a decontamination station, or would you rather send a robot in the building immediately upon arrival?

I know what I’d want to do. This is just one of many scenarios in which robot developers are hoping to help emergency responders stay safe. After all, how can emergency responders help the victim if they become victims themselves?

Check out the video below to find out more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NIST Robot Testing Methods

The robots at Disaster City® this week came to be tested – and tested they were. The following is a list of the testing the robots were subjected to. Some robots are specialized in function and do not perform all the tests.

The tests are all in various stages of being standardized and the test methods are being evaluated as much – if not more – than the robots themselves.

“We are getting robot data to standardize the tests,” said Adam Jacoff, National Institute of Standards and Technology Robotics Research Engineer. “We have to make sure the tests are fair, repeatable and easily reproduced to proliferate widely. The process involves building a consensus around the test methods with robot developers, emergency responders and test administrators.”

Communication testing

Communications? Think about it, if you can’t tell the robot what to do, how is it going to do it?

“Your system is only as good as your radio link,” said Patrick Goode with Remotec Northrup Grumman. “If you can only operate a 100 meters away, how much utility does that really give a first responder? It’s good to see that NIST is including these types of tests in this evaluation.”

The communication tests are designed to test radio signals and the ability to function at varying distances. It is divided into two parts: line-of-sight testing and non-line-of-sight testing.

Line-of-sight testing: Every 100 meters, operators must use the robot to read a visual chart and do a specific task. The longest distance on the course is 1,100 meters away from the operator.

This year, a new test was added to communication testing – Non-line-of-sight sight testing. At 500 meters from the operator, cargo containers are stacked three high by two wide. The idea is to determine if a robot can function when its radio signal does not have a direct line of sight. Once behind the containers, operators must get the robot to read a visual chart and do specific tasks.

“It is good to have a non-partial, third-party to allow us to test our radio equipment,” Goode said. “In the old days it was all fiber optic reels because there was no radio technology to reach more than 200 meters. The technology we have now is fairly recent – within the last couple of years. Being allowed to test out here lets the first responders know this technology is real and the capability is out there.”

Bottom line - the farther the responder can work from a hazardous situation the better.

Goode added, “Typically, in hazardous types of environments, you want as much distance between the user of the robot and the scenario as possible.”

Aquatic testing

This is the second year NIST has included underwater testing for submersible robots. These tiny submarines can be used in unsafe or unstable underwater environments to protect rescue and recovery workers.

The underwater robots are also equipped with lights and cameras, much like their on-land brothers and sisters. Check out the following video clip taken from a submersible robot.

Other test methods

These tests are all done remotely without being able to see the robot actually do the test. Operators must rely on the robots cameras and sensors to complete the operation.

Mobility: Tests the maneuverability of the robots. Robots must climb stairs and steep angles, traverse gaps and crawl through various obstacles.

Manipulation: Various test methods test how robots can perform tasks like picking up objects and other dexterity exercises.

Human/System Interactions: How easy are the robots to use to completely search an unknown environment? In this case, it’s a random maze with rolling and pitching floors.

Cache Packaging, Weight, Setup, Tools: Most basic test. Used to determine size, weight, packaging, tools needed, etc.

Endurance: Tests measure the operator and robots ability to negotiate various types of terrain within a fixed course. The more times the course can be negotiated in succession, the more endurance. There is even a robot with fuel cell technology currently being tested.

Visual Acuity: How well can the robot “see.” Tests measure field of view, pan, tilt, illumination, and clarity of robot cameras. On uneven terrain, can the robot point to the object in question.

Mapping: Lasers are mounted on robots to make 2-D and 3-D maps of search areas. Currently, experiments are ongoing to quantify the value of searching a mapped area versus searching an unknown environment. The photo to the left is an example of a map generated by a laser mounted on a robot.

Towing: Towing cargo by dragging and rolling. Examples: To haul lumber down range for shoring and hauling victims on litters or skids.

Decontamination: Robots must be able to be washed with a pressure washer. The robot is sprinkled with a specialized powder. After washing, a black light is passed over the robot to determine if it is truly clean.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hardware heroes: search and rescue robots

Video highlights from Monday.

Will robots soon be tools used by urban search and rescue teams?

“I feel strongly that robots will be a valuable asset in the near future for search and rescue teams from around the world,” said
Texas Task Force 1 Director Bob McKee. “They have tangible benefits that can supplement rescuers.”

This week at
Disaster City®, one can get a glimpse of the future.

Approximately 35 robot manufacturers from across the United States and international representatives from Japan, Germany and Canada will test the latest in robot technology at the world’s most realistic search and rescue training ground. The robots represented envelop all formats – ground, air and water.

“The developers will test the robots and a lot of data will be collected on Monday and Tuesday,” said Billy Parker, TEEX Urban Search and Rescue Program Manager. “The robots will then be used by responders from around the country on Wednesday and Thursday and the responders will give the manufacturers feedback to improve the robots for search and rescue. That’s the ultimate goal: To get the robots ready for a search and rescue environment.”

Standardized test methods are set up around Disaster City® to test robot mobility, energy, power, sensors, manipulation and human/system interaction – to name a few.

“The standard test methods are meant to be abstract and meant to be replicated anywhere,” Adam Jacoff, National Institute of Standards and Technology Robotics Research Engineer said. “The idea is to be able to build the test in your shop and practice. The tests are driven by responder needs and requirements. In reducing the tests to an apparatus and method we are conveying to the developers how to answer the problems.”

The exercise is sponsored by NIST (a part of the Department of Commerce) and the Department of Homeland Security.

Why at Disaster City®?

Disaster City is a 52-acre, mock community which features full-scale, collapsible structures designed to simulate various levels of disaster and wreckage. Emergency responders from across the globe venture to Disaster City® for unparalleled search and rescue training and exercises. Simply put, Disaster City® is the most comprehensive emergency response training facility available today.

“We have been to several FEMA training facilities and everyone has their own key components,” Jacoff said. “Disaster City is the one place that really puts it all together. The variety of scenarios here is unmatched anywhere else. We can bring responders in and teach them to operate the robots in the test methods then we can deploy into the scenarios – the train crashes, the rubble piles, the partially collapsed structures. That’s the kind of thing only found at Disaster City and the TEEX and Texas A&M folks are always very gracious in supporting us.”

Check back later this week for more video, pictures and information regarding the NIST Robot Evaluations.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A&M's Mays Business School Experiences Disaster City®

Click on any of the pictures to see a high-resolution version.

Check out this brief video of the day’s events.

Some things you can’t learn in the classroom. On Monday, 90
Texas A&M Mays Business School MBA students engaged in a unique and highly stressful learning experience -- one they'll hope never happens in real life.

The entire first-year MBA class participated in a gauntlet of exercises at the world-famous
Disaster City® to learn to deal with demanding emergency situations. The Texas Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) Disaster City® – located about two miles from Texas A&M’s campus – is 52 acres of devastation and destruction used to teach first responders the skills necessary for search and rescue.

TEEX specializes in training first responders in all disciplines and, in conjunction with Mays Business School leaders, developed a day of training the MBA students will never forget. Exercises included rescuing a live person from an overturned train car, lowering a live patient from the top of a two-story building, extracting a live victim from a confined space, moving a concrete panel with only ropes and a scavenger hunt using GPS technology.

"Critical decision-making during the course of a disaster is the essence of emergency response,” said Bob McKee, Director of TEEX’s Urban Search and Rescue division, which runs the day-to-day operations of Disaster City®. “We are excited to help another part of The Texas A&M University System experience the world-class facilities and training we have to offer.”

The students got sweaty, dirty and tired. But they also got a sense of trust and a sense of working as a team in situations which are chaotic and out of their comfort zone.

“The biggest thing that came out of today was working with our team and good communication with our team members,” Mays student A.J. Oben said. “At the end of the day – in business or anything you do – you have to work as a team. To be honest, I never dreamt of being a part of anything like this. This experience has been completely mind-boggling and it’s a unique opportunity to bring real-life experiences to the business world.”

Kelli Kilpatrick, director of the MBA Program added: “This terrific collaborative effort between the MBA program and TEEX provides a valuable enrichment experience that is unique to the Texas A&M MBA program. This one-of-a-kind enrichment experience requires students to act quickly, adjust the plan as necessary, and solve problems as a team. These are skills directly applicable to real-world business. It is an experience which we believe will equip our MBA students with leadership qualities necessary to succeed throughout their careers.”