Robots, Drones and Heart-Detectors: How Disaster Technology is Saving Lives

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(CNN) — Robots with cameras, microphones and sensors searched for victims stranded in flooded homes and on rooftops. They assessed damage and sent back images from places rescuers couldn’t get.

It was August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. These robots were a crucial connection between emergency responders and survivors.

Ten years later, the technology, and how humans interact with it, has only improved. New technology is changing the way we handle whatever life throws at us. In the case of disaster relief and recovery, this means more effective ways to save lives and begin the arduous process of rebuilding after catastrophe.

“You’ve got a golden 72 hours of the initial response that’s very critical,” said Dr. Robin Murphy, who worked with robots after the September 11, 2001, attacks, in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and at the Fukushima nuclear accident.

“Then you have the restoration of services. After the emergency teams have got everything under control, you got to get your power back on, your sewage, you know, your roads and that.”

Murphy, a robotics professor and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, sees special potential and value in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

“It acts like a plane. It’s smarter than a plane because it’s got all sorts of onboard electronics to let it do preprogram surveys. It takes pictures like on a satellite or a Mars explorer and then pulls those back together into a hyper-accurate map — a 3-D reconstruction,” Murphy said.

UAVs such as the PrecisionHawk Lancaster, a fixed wing drone, are not only able to aide human disaster responders by providing photos of where to look for victims, but they also provide a valuable resource for determining how to approach the relief efforts.

Murphy said it’s not only very accurate, but it’s also easy to pick up and maneuver.

What’s more, the robots can help multiple relief efforts at once. One group may be using the UAF to search for survivors, while at the same time another organization can use different data to check their models of flooding in the storm surge or radiation levels, and update that information to provide guidance to still other groups and teams aiding in the relief and recovery efforts. The more the drones are used, the more researchers can learn about how to improve them.

“We go participate in disasters to learn. You can’t really tell how the technology’s going to be used until you use it. You can’t use the technology until it’s there. It’s kind of a cycle,” said Murphy.

But as UAV technology becomes more intuitive to human operators and ubiquitous in everyday life, its use in disasters is threatened. Murphy calls it “disaster tourism” when amateur drone pilots — often incorrectly believing they are helping — get in the way of relief and rescue efforts.

“They don’t know what to look for. They don’t know how to get the data,” Murphy said. “You’ve got a lot of high-resolution imagery of people’s property and stuff that you’re flying over,” in addition to causing clutter in the sky. Murphy and CRASAR don’t go into disaster areas until agencies contact them directly and ask for help.

“It’s a matter of getting (the data) into the hands of the responders, figuring out who needs what data in what form, when do they need it, and how they’re going to get it. And these issues of privacy, security, how do you train people? What are the protocols?”

While UAVs cruise the sky, other robots do groundwork. RoboSimian is a highly dexterous robot that can be deployed in the field, meaning it can actually go into a real disaster environment and work. It can scan for objects and assess the situation, and when it gets there, with its four seven-degree-of-freedom limbs, it can actually manipulate its surroundings — turn a valve, pick up a drill, do things that a human would be able to do, but can’t because of the risk.

“A great example of that would be the Fukushima disaster– where there was radiation. It was extremely dangerous for humans to go in. And what would have been really great is if we could have sent robots in to do something as simple as turn a valve,” said Kyle Edelberg, a robotics engineer with NASA-JPL.

Unfortunately, when the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011, damaging the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant, robot technology was not yet at a place to be able to do that.

While RoboSimian is a workhorse, crawling on its front limbs like a robotic ape, it generally moves at a slow and steady pace. So, when time is of the essence, and people are trapped in rubble and stranded in disaster situations a different technology must be deployed — FINDER. FINDER stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response.

FINDER uses low-power radar to detect the small movements from breathing and the heartbeat of a buried victim, even though several feet of rubble and debris.

The technology is managed by Jim Lux, of JPL, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Lux explains the deceptively simple idea behind how FINDER works by sending the low-power radio signal which reflects off the debris being searched.

“The reflection from the rubble doesn’t move. So it’s not changing. But the reflection from the victim is moving because their heartbeat, it changes a little bit. We look for those tiny changes and then determine if they’re from a human,” Lux said.

When disaster strikes, scientists hope these robots and others technologies can help in the effort to rescue survivors and — as humans always do — recover and rebuild.