In the war on terror, University of South Florida engineering professor Robin Murphy finds herself a pioneer on the front line with a new kind of soldier: the search-and-rescue robot.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003
TAMPA -- It resembles the scene of an urban disaster, treacherous for rescuers to traverse. Strewn about are piles of broken concrete blocks and pipes, metal and dirt.
Amid the rubble, a small black object looking like some futuristic Radio Shack toy tank rolls into view.
No more than a foot long and a half-foot wide, the minimachine -- with two tiny search lights above a camera lens eye -- surveys the damage.
It edges forward, climbs over a mound of debris, then stops. Suddenly, the rubber treads shift from horizontal to vertical, raising the lens into a better vantage point to transmit images. It seems to have a mind of its own, even though every move is guided by a man 10 yards away with a remote control and laptop.
The robot has done its job.
Applause fills the breezy morning air. Some 50 scientists who gathered Feb. 20 outside the University of South Florida's engineering complex are impressed by the brief demonstration of the VGTV, Variable Geometry Tracked Vehicle.
They have come from Stanford, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M, not to mention representatives of robotics manufacturers, the military and countries as far away as Japan, Sweden, Italy and England.
They have left their classrooms, computers and academic theory behind to get their hands a little dirty; to see an array of the nation's top search-and-rescue robots perform in simulated conditions.
And they are all here because of the woman in mirrored magenta shades and constant motion: Dr. Robin Murphy, USF professor of engineering.
On this morning at the engineering department, there is other news. Suspended professor Sami Al-Arian has been arrested by the FBI several hours earlier, and the media has swarmed to the campus for a news conference with president Judy Genshaft.
One USF engineering professor accused of furthering terrorism.
Another finding new ways to respond to it.
She looks like an emergency medical tech ready for action: work boots, navy-blue pants, white hard hat over her short brown hair and a blue T-shirt with the emblem of the institute she directs, CRASAR, the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.
One moment, she's answering questions from scientists. The next, she's racing to another robot demonstration. Then, she's huddling with her graduate assistants, always keeping the program moving.
In a larger sense, that's what Murphy does best -- she keeps the relatively new field of robotics and rescue moving forward, not just in the United States but internationally.
As a professor of human-robotic interaction and head of CRASAR, Murphy has led her team of students to worldwide recognition as leaders in the field. January's Discover magazine honored Murphy in its "Top 100 Science Stories of 2002" edition.
She was featured for her advances with rescue robots, in particular the work she and several graduate students performed at the site of the World Trade Center. With a cadre of robots packed in the back of her husband's new Ford van, they arrived on Sept. 12, 2001, and stayed for 11 days. Though some of their robots were too large to maneuver in the rubble, a handful of the small VGTV models squeezed deep into the collapse.
The robots helped identify five victims, and transmitted many detailed videos and photos that could have proven invaluable had their been survivors.
"Nobody ever had pictures of what things look like in the rubble pile from underneath," she says. "We were able to go, 'This is what you guys have to look for.'
"But we weren't in Discover just because we were at the World Trade Center. It's what we've done since then: putting together a response team, detailing what went wrong and what worked in brilliant papers written by some of my students, getting engaged with medical researchers who've designed a medical sensor for simple triage to put on the robot."
Murphy, 46, is in demand these days. When she's not teaching her graduate class at USF, she's traveling the country giving presentations, serving as chair or co-chair on various committees, coordinating with the Department of Defense and recently a United Nations response team in South Africa.
Murphy is hardly the stiff scientist one might expect for a robotologist. She is disarmingly casual in conversation, as with her view on making robots less complex for rescue workers ("right now robots require a friggin' Ph.D to use") or her official term for large robots ("big honker robots.")
Yet she is also intense, pushing herself and the people around her.
"The one word to describe her is driven, says former student Mark Micire, who worked with Murphy at the World Trade Center site and now runs his own company, American Standard Robotics.
"What separates Robin from a lot of her colleagues is that many of them don't get out the door into the field," says Kevin Murphy, her husband of 20 years. "But that's where she thrives."
Murphy and her students don't actually build the robots, though they have codesigned some models based on their expertise.
What they do, in essence, is take models made by companies with names like iRobot and Inucton, create the software programs to build in artificial intelligence and adapt them to search and rescue.
The little VGTV that performed so effectively in the rubble of the twin towers collapse? It was built to explore air-conditioning ducts. They gave it a new brain and figured out ways to transport it (in a backpack) and deploy it at a moment's notice.
In her role as head of CRASAR, Murphy has worked with a variety of agencies and manufacturers to expand rescue robot capabilities.
Some of the work has focused on her innovation of the marsupial robot: a larger mother robot that ferries three "baby" robots closer to the scene.
These could be used in situations where large robots can't maneuver in tight spaces, but have the added battery power to transport the smaller robots (which have limited battery life) to do the job.
In addition, CRASAR robots successfully demonstrated an ability to provide medical care to trapped victims. It was done at the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incident Response Force facility in Maryland, showing potential for robot applications in the event of a biochemical attack.
"Imagine the scenario where something green is hanging over the city and you don't know what it is and or where it's coming from," she says. "These guys can roll in, and throw a robot off the back of a truck to carry all the gas meters and detectors.
"Meanwhile, the rescuers are able to figure out if they have to put on a Level A or a Level B suit. Do they have to look like they're dressed for the moon or X-Files or just use regular gear? Level A gear is slow. It's hard to get around in. So the robots will be able to help rescuers make the right decisions."
The Defense Department loaned robots to Murphy for research before the war in Afghanistan. Several of those robots were called back from USF and sent over to explore caves with the Army.
Murphy has come quite a ways from the time, as a Georgia Institute of Technology undergrad, that she pulled the engine from her MG Midget, lugged it into her apartment, and rebuilt it on her dining room table.
"Hey, I was a mechanical engineer and it needed work," she says. "I guess I've always liked hands-on challenges."
Her father was a mechanical engineer, and growing up in Mobile, Ala., Murphy took notice: "That's what I always wanted to be."
She immersed herself in science fiction, a passion that one day would lead her to name her robots after female science-fiction writers.
"I never really identified with the heroes, the ones who fought all the space wars," she says. "I always thought the scientists who built things for these guys to go and do great things were far more interesting."
She earned her bachelor's degree in engineering at Georgia Tech, and was so busy she never noticed a young engineer named Kevin Murphy. They met after they both landed jobs with Dow Chemical in Louisiana, then married and moved back to Atlanta, where Murphy earned her master's degree in computer science at Georgia Tech.
She won a fellowship and worked for a professor with an expertise in artificial intelligence. "Everybody knows you can't make machines smart, right?" she says. "Well, the only way I could get funding was to work with this guy. So, what the heck. I worked with him and within two months, I was on the road to my Ph.D.
"So this is what I do -- robotics. Artificial Intelligence robotics."
Her work began to gain attention while she was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, where she taught before coming to USF six years ago. There, her ideas about creating marsupial robots impressed Rita Virginia Rodriguez of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., which funds the work of promising scientists.
Rodriguez began funding Murphy's work in Colorado, and continues to do so at USF. She traveled to Tampa to attend the two-day workshop.
"Robin is one of the most important people in this movement," says Rodriguez. "And there are not many women in the engineering field. She's one of those engineers who is very good, very forward-thinking. This is the first workshop of its kind, and it's all her initiative."
Nearby, a team from the University of Minnesota displays its robot named Scout -- a tiny 6-inch tube with two wheels and an antenna. One of the inventors picks Scout up and tosses it on the sidewalk. No problem. It keeps rolling via remote control, another potential tool in search and rescue.
At the rubble site, a serpentine robot attached to a mobile object on treads peers into a concrete pipe. This type was developed at Carnegie Mellon, and it can squeeze into very tight spots to transmit data.
Murphy and her fellow robotmakers are still testing, still trying to improve the technology. Right now, many robots operate attached to long tethers so they can be retrieved if they become snagged.
Losing a robot can be expensive: Murphy's range from $14,000 to $80,000 apiece (though replacement robots can be shipped to the scene by manufacturers at a moment's notice).
There are still many logistical hurdles to overcome. Remote control operators have to be within about 100 feet of a disaster site. And remote control communication is subject to the same glitches as wireless phones.
"But people are starting to see what robots can do," Murphy says. "One thing we're trying to do is help rescue workers learn what's possible."
The birth of robot-assisted search and rescue began with one of the nation's worst disasters: the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City.
One of Murphy's graduate students, John Blitch, a military man on academic leave, went there to assist. He came back to USF appalled at the large, clumsy robots that sat unused in a parking lot. "They're built for bombs, and they're heavy, huge and slow and you'd have to worry about them causing a secondary collapse," she says.
Blitch soon rejoined the military and helped create a Defense Department program to build small, mobile robots for battlefield applications. At the same time, Murphy and her students began focusing on software: how to control robots, how to integrate them with a computer, how to create her marsupial robot prototype.
Blitch went on to found CRASAR, devoted to robot research, evaluation, training and rescue deployment around the world.
When the terrorists attacked in New York on 9/11, Murphy knew immediately that was where she was heading, along with graduate students Mark Micire, Jenn Casper and Brian Minton. Her husband, Kevin, stayed home with their two children, ages 15 and 7, as Murphy's group drove north.
They were joined by three other robot teams -- from the Navy, iRobot and Foster-Miller -- and were the only one representing a university.
At first, the USF contingent had trouble getting through the police lines. "The fire and rescue teams were a bit suspicious, because when they think of robots, they think of big explosive ordnance devices," she says.
But with the help of Blitch, then an Army lieutenant colonel, and later FEMA, Murphy and Co. were able to get close enough to help. The marsupials proved to be too big to squeeze through the rubble. But the smaller robots proved remarkably effective. "There was so much tragedy all around us, but we had to stay focused," she says.
Murphy, CRASAR's chief since early 2002, has moved at an intense pace ever since, working to become even more effective in the event of another terrorist attack. Two of her students, Casper and Minton, have added 300 hours of rescue certification to their training and prolonged their degrees by two more years to help the cause.
In January, her team sent a robot to San Diego to participate in the "Shadow Bowl" -- a mock exercise of disaster readiness held outside the Super Bowl.
They stayed in Tampa, monitoring data from the robot, learning better ways to communicate with medical teams had an attack taken place.
The work never ends. Murphy recently received an invitation to travel to Japan to train a team in robot search and rescue. CRASAR now has its own fully equipped Suburban and a special trailer for rescue operations, plus its own hard hats and uniforms (something that would have helped identify them to authorities in New York City).
The recent orange alert hit home with Murphy.
"It caused a knot in my stomach, because I had to call everyone in and say, 'Okay, let's make sure we're ready to go within four hours,"' she says. "So we can be at MacDill (Air Force Base) or hitting the road."
That's not exactly a typical professorial function. But Murphy thinks her mission extends far beyond the classroom.
"I just want to be of use," she says, as her bustling robot seminar winded down last week. "You look at what these guys in fire and rescue service have to do. The technology is there to help them. And it's up to my community of scientists to get to where we can give the right technology to the right people at the right time."