Texas A&M researchers receive NSF grant

Researchers and responders from The Texas A&M University System have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a visual “common ground” between operators and responders who use micro and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for search Robin Murphy with Flying Robotand rescue.

Following principles in how people know what other people are talking about in conversations, visual common ground will allow responders to easily express where they want the UAV to fly and what angle to examine collapsed structures using an iPad or other tablet. The responders would also be able to review imagery and video while the UAV continues its mission rather than waiting for the UAV to land.

Response professionals from the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Disaster Preparedness and Response Division (DPR) will fly weekly at Disaster City® with researchers from the Texas Engineering Experiment Station’s (TEES) Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), speeding the development and refinement of the natural user interface.

Disaster City® is a 52-acre facility featuring full-scale collapsible structures that replicate community infrastructure. The site includes simulations of a strip mall, office building, industrial complex, assembly hall/theater, single-family dwelling, train derailments, three active rubble piles and a small lake.

The grant is the first direct partnering of emergency responders with university professors/researchers for UAV research. Bob McKee, DPR director and agency chief for Texas Task Force 1, serves as a principal investigator with Dr. Robin Murphy, Texas A&M University professor and CRASAR director. The partnership leverages the capabilities of top academic researchers and the preparedness and response expertise of TEEX, all existing within the A&M System.

“Being able to work directly and routinely with responders under conditions as near to a real disaster as one can get will allow the research to progress faster. This could only happen at Texas A&M,” Murphy said. “Normally we’d have to try to condense a year of work into one week of trials, and if something went wrong we’d have to wait months for another opportunity for responders or a demolished building to become available.”

McKee (pictured right) said, “TEEX has been actively involved in efforts to develop Photo of Bob McKeeand adapt robots for search and rescue applications. Through working with the National Institute for Standards and Technology project to develop standard test methods for emergency response robots to collaborating with scientific researchers and commercial developers at our unique Disaster City® facility, we’re hoping to someday use small UAVs and other unmanned systems to help save lives.”

The grant will help enable emergency responders to take advantage of small “personal” UAVs being developed for the U.S. Department of Defense. Urban search and rescue operations can be more challenging than military peacekeeping operations as they can require assessment and analysis of damaged structures, hazardous areas, and other unique situations.

The idea for creating shared displays is a result of more than a decade of research on rescue robotics by Murphy, who was recently named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company magazine. She has led UAV deployments at numerous disasters starting with Hurricane Katrina. Her work with Dr. Jenny Burke (a former graduate student currently with Boeing), based on CRASAR experiences with ground robots at the World Trade Center, showed that search and rescue specialists were nine times more effective if two responders—not one—worked together using a shared visual display.

The team expects to have an open source tablet interface for AirRobot and Dragan UAVs within 24 months that leads to a significant, measurable improvement in team performance as well as high user acceptance.