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Feature Stories

Ask Professor X

Rescue Robotics

By Sondra White '87

Senior Editor

Subject: Robin Murphy, Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering.
Education: M.S. & Ph.D., Computer Science (1989 & 1992), Georgia Tech University; B.M.E., Mechanical Engineering (1980), Georgia Tech University.
Research Interests: Artificial intelligence for mobile robots as applied to disaster robotics.

What influenced your interest in using robots in emergency response?

"The 1995 Oklahoma City truck bombing. Until then, everybody was working on robots for Mars exploration. One of my graduate students who had search and rescue training helped in Oklahoma City. When he returned, he shifted his master’s thesis and I shifted my research. We became the first group to get a National Science Foundation grant with the words “rescue robot” in it."

What is RESPOND-R and why does it matter?

"It’s a mobile test instrument at Texas A&M launched in 2009 and supported by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a multidisciplinary and integrated research tool to facilitate field research in emergency informatics—the real-time collection, processing, distribution and visualization of information for prevention, preparedness, response and recovery from emergencies. We don’t yet know the best use of robotics, so we have to capture and analyze data, and get it to the decision-makers."

EMILY is a lifeguard-assistant robot in use by about 10 different countries. 

Who is EMILY and how has she helped Syrian refugees?

"EMILY is a brand of lifeguard-assistant robot in use by about 10 different countries. Think of her as a life preserver on a mini jet ski that has a camera and two-way audio. Hydronaulix, one of our Roboticists Without Borders members, donated two units to the Hellenic Coast Guard and trained rescuers to use them. EMILY safely escorted more than 250 Syrian refugees to shore on five boats in the first two weeks of use. EMILY robots have been in use by agencies since 2010."

What are your thoughts on the robot used by Dallas police to kill a sniper?

"It was a teleoperated bomb squad robot—a tool just like any other used by the police. Were it not for that robot, it is my understanding that a police officer would have walked in, packed the C-4 charge and backed away slowly. It was a straight substitution. Police who operate these robots have trained for decades. It’s insulting to second-guess them. As a board member for the Responsible Robotics Foundation, I often think about the ethics of robotics. I think it can be unethical not to use robots when public safety is at risk."

What sets Texas A&M University apart in disaster robotics?

"The Texas Engineering Extension Service employs practitioners worldwide. Then there’s our top-notch engineering college. Add to that the humanitarian work that we’re seeing from the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at the College of Architecture and The Bush School of Government and Public Service, which is looking at the regulatory side of disaster robotics, and you'll find a rare combination of expertise."

With additional funds, what would you accomplish?

"First, we need rapid transportation to the scene of disasters, such as access to corporate jets or travel vouchers on commercial airlines. When lives are at stake, spending 24 to 36 hours in transit is unacceptable. Second, we need fellowships for graduate and post-doctoral students that will allow them to continue developing the disaster robotics field. We have ways of funding undergraduates, but graduate fellowships would dramatically enhance our success."
 

Murphy was named one of the 30 Most Innovative Women Professors Alive Today this year by The Best Master’s Degrees, a website that provides reviews and rankings to help students select which college programs to pursue. 

Her 2015 TED talk on rescue robotics, delivered in Monterey, California, has more than 907,000 views. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. Her talk is one of 20 cited in TED founder Chris Anderson’s guide on how to give good talks.

Through hands-on interactions, kids and adults become assistant zoo keepers as they meet six different robots at Murphy’s Robot Petting Zoo, part of her Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. “If we explain robots to kids using animal terms, they relate more and become more respectful of robots," she said.

Murphy draws strength and inspiration from her late husband Kevin, who recently passed away; her late daughter Kate, who passed away in 2005 at age 17 from a kidney defect; her son Allan, a Florida Southern University epidemiology student; and the family dachshund, Stormtrooper.

Rescue robots were first deployed in the World Trade Center disaster. Murphy, her colleagues and several of their robots were invited by the New York State Emergency Management Office to help in the aftermath. Although the robots did not discover any survivors, they completed numerous missions, proving their value as first responders. Since then, they’ve responded to nearly 30 disasters worldwide.

Murphy revels in sharing her expertise with her Texas A&M students, professional responders, workshop participants and blog audience. “That's why I became a professor!” she said. “It’s all about passing on what I learn to brilliant, motivated students, busy emergency managers and first responders around the world. The synergy I experience with my students inspires me to do more."