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Technology.... at Ground Zero.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded eight grants to engineering and social science researchers to conduct post-disaster assessments at the sites of the attacks. According to NSF, the data collected and the assessments made by the university-based teams will be used to improve the integrity of the nation's infrastructure during fires, earthquakes, explosions and other hazards. It will also be used to improve the nation's response to such events.

Robots for Rescue

Dr. Robin Murphy is an associate professor of computer science at the University of South Florida and the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at the university. The center serves existing search and rescue organizations by deploying robotic systems into hazardous sites around the world. CRASAR provides certification and training for search and rescue personnel on robot systems and does research and evaluation on emerging robot technologies. The center has two caches of robots for rapid deployment in response to a crisis. The east cache is at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and the west cache is located in Littleton, Colo., with CRASAR Director of Operations John Blitch. Blitch, a former graduate student of Murphy's, is the recipient of the 2002 ACM Eugene Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions Within Computer Science and Informatics for his efforts since 1995 in rescue robotics.

Murphy was one of those called immediately after the attacks, and she arrived at the site of the World Trade Center collapse the next morning. On Wednesday at 8:00 p.m., she and her team went into "Ground Zero," and they remained onsite through October 2. Murphy's response team included three of the graduate students who helped in the development of the robots--Jenn Casper, Mark Micire and Brian Minten.

The experimental robots developed by Murphy and her team are "marsupial" robots, because they consist of a "mother" robot and smaller "baby" robots carried in the mother's pouch. When the larger robot has gone as far into the site as she can, she releases the smaller ones to maneuver into tight spaces and search small crevices and hidden spaces. Murphy calls her robots mothers and daughters. Why daughters? "Because," she explains, "I am a woman in science."

The damage at the World Trade Center site was so bad that the mother robot could not be used, so the daughter robots were carried in backpacks.

The fire department's camera wands are only seven feet long, but the little shoebox-size robots have tethers with a range of 100 feet, so they were sent into the rubble at Ground Zero whenever the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested their services.

Robots are usually either tethered or wireless. With her robots, "All mothers are wireless, and daughters are either wireless or tethered," says Murphy.

"Tethered robots have no batteries," Murphy explains, "and because they have no batteries, that makes them smaller and lighter."

It still took two people to handle one of the robots, since one person has to run the robot while another runs the tether as it snakes through the debris. But the robots are able to go where human or even dog rescuers may not be able to go if the area is too hot, too small or simply too unsafe.

Murphy describes the robots as cameras on wheels, "Even though." she says, "they don't actually have wheels."

However, she notes that, "They all have cameras and two-way audio, at a minimum, and some can be outfitted with more sensors." And, she says, "They can raise or lower themselves from the height of a mouse to the height of a squirrel."

Murphy says that, "Although only the daughter robots could be used at the World Trade Center, we were able to validate the idea of using robots."

Sadly, the robots were not able to find any survivors in a disaster site that Murphy describes as having the gray, ashy look seen in depictions of Pompeii, but they were able to provide some closure for families of victims through their discovery of ten sets of remains.

Because the World Trade Center site contained such extreme devastation, trained rescuers often had difficulty distinguishing bodies from objects. However, Murphy envisions a time when there will be tether-flee robots guided by artificial intelligence and hopes to develop algorithms that can distinguish colors and shapes to help robots locate victims. In the meantime, she will be working this fall to interest a new generation in the power of robots through a program with the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry in which courses will be set up for K-12 students.

Digital Data Collection

When Georgia Tech professor David Frost devised his integrated digital data system known as PQuake, he envisioned it being used for earthquake damage reconnaissance missions. After 9-11, he led an NSF-supported team using his system to collect damage assessment data at the site of the World Trade Center collapse.

Frost's PQuake complete system includes a digital camera, a handheld global positioning system (GPS) receiver, a Palm handheld computer for field reconnaissance and a laptop computer with a custom geographic information system (GIS) application for data reduction. A portable printer can be added to the system for hard copies of maps.

At the World Trade Center site, Frost and his team were able to use this technology to more rapidly gather and analyze higher-quality data on the damage to buildings and infrastructure. According to Frost, the World Trade Center collapse differed in nature from an earthquake because it was more of a point source event, which means that while the damage at the site itself was incredibly severe, the damage to surrounding buildings was relatively small. He cites the Bankers Trust building as an example. "The north face of the building was hit by the top of one of the towers, so there was a big gouge," Frost explains. "On the south side, not even a pane of glass was broken."

Before going to the site, Frost and his team modified the software to account for the different patterns of damages seen at the site. They added modules that would allow for reporting of damage not only on a building-by-building basis, but also floor by floor and even to each of the faces of the buildings.

Frost's team made four field trips to the site of the World Trade Center collapse where they contributed a valuable element of safety by providing detailed maps within hours. Rescue and recovery workers quickly received critical information to assist their planning and operations.

Another valuable asset offered by the PQuake system is the standardization of data by making the recording more consistent. When data collection began at the World Trade Center, Frost says, "What was done was done by hand because they didn't know we existed." He believes that most of the paper-based data that was collected quickly in handwritten form still has not been transferred to longer-term archivable formats.

The NSF knew about the technology and knew that it had been used very successfully for 10 days last year following an earthquake in India. "That success," says Frost, "underscored for NSF the value of using our system at the World Trade Center."

The data retrieved at and around Ground Zero will be analyzed to evaluate how different construction systems performed, Frost notes. Studies can be done in areas such as how well exterior skins remained physically attached to buildings and whether certain glazing systems performed better than others. And because of the work done at the World Trade Center, when the next disaster occurs, many more people will know about the PQuake technology and its value in rapid, consistent, high-quality onsite data collection.

Laser Mapping

Another NSF-sponsored project that helped to assess damage at the World Trade Center site involved three-dimensional maps created by laser technology. Faculty, staff and students in the GeoSensing Systems Engineering Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering at the University of Florida participated in the effort to precisely map damage at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

University of Florida engineering professor Dave Bloomquist and his colleagues use airborne laser swath mapping (ALSM) and ground-based scanning laser technologies to collect and analyze measurements. When the aerial and ground-based observations are combined, the laser-sharp 3-D models they create provide more detailed and accurate information than ever before available for planning rescue and recovery.

The University of Florida was the first academic institution in the United States to purchase and operate an ALSM unit and has completed more than 25 research projects since its delivery in March 1999. The projects were funded by federal, state and local agencies. One federal project involves flying over sinkhole areas near highways and collecting data assessing potential collapse sites.

In South Dakota, Bloomquist and other GeoSensing faculty have been asked to collect data on a slowly moving landslide, because it is moving toward a bridge. The team has plans to work with their local fire department when buildings are burned down as part of training exercises. The University of Florida researchers will do laser scans before, during and after the event.

Next year at St. George's Island in Florida, a large bridge is being decommissioned. "We are buying a large barge that we will fill with rocks and smash into the bridge," Bloomquist says. "We will scan the bridge before, during and after we crash into it."

The importance of studying such structures and such events was made clear following the tragic accident in May when a barge collapsed a bridge in Oklahoma.

Another possible use is in West Virginia. "In the coal mining area of West Virginia, large areas are slowly settling, and our airborne laser could measure them periodically," Bloomquist explains. Such knowledge could help pinpoint future collapses.

One obvious use of the technology would be in examining infrastructure for earthquake damage--especially if "before" scans have been made. "You can scan an overpass to see if there is any damage, and you can tell if there is a settlement differential," notes Bloomquist. "You can find out if a building is out of plumb or if it is damaged in terms of verticality--and you can find out quickly. If you scan long enough, you can even see micro-cracks."

When the university got the call asking for assistance in collecting data, their ALSM system was not operational because it was about to be returned to the manufacturer for upgrades to increase the laser pulse rate. But a team that included the University of Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Geodetic Survey and Optech Inc. was assembled under the leadership of the Department of Defense Joint Precision Strike Demonstration Group. Optech is the company that manufactures the ALSM and ground laser instrumentation, and they made their new generation ALTM 2033 laser system available and installed it in an airplane operated by NOAA.

The first observations were collected on September 23, and an area of about 10 square miles was mapped. "We got a lot of data," Bloomquist says, "and we're still looking at all of that data."

Future Uses

NSF sees the potential uses of these laser-mapping techniques as revolutionary in emergency damage assessment for comparison of infrastructure in earthquake- or hurricane-prone areas both before and after a disaster occurs.

Because of the complementary aspects of the PQuake system and the 3-D laser mapping techniques, Frost and Bloomquist are looking at possible collaborative efforts to link the technologies to produce an enhanced emergency response system. In such a system, PQuake would be used to collect and accurately plot damage against three-dimensional laser-generated ALSM base maps.

And, if they are needed, Robin Murphy and her mother-daughter robots will be ready for deployment--saving the lives of both injured victims and rescue workers by taking on the most dangerous tasks in search and rescue missions.

RELATED ARTICLE: NSF quick response research awards.

Following the 9-11 attacks, NSF awarded grants to university-based teams to collect and analyze data. The data will be used to help improve the structural integrity of the nation's infrastructure during fires, earthquakes, explosions and other hazards. It will also be used to improve the nation's response to such threats.

Following is a list of the awards. For more information, visit

* Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, University of California at Berkeley: collecting data on the mechanical and structural properties of the World Trade Center towers, particularly steel affected by heat, fire and impact.

* David Bloomquist, University of Florida: using a new land-based laser system at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to produce high-resolution 3-D maps of the interior and exterior of damaged buildings.

* J. David Frost, Georgia Institute of Technology: collecting data on structural damage at the World Trade Center using handheld technology that includes a GPS, digital camera and handheld computer.

* John Harrald, George Washington University: studying the coordination and communications of emergency, medical, law enforcement and military responders.

* George Lee, State University of New York at Buffalo, and others from the NSF-supported Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research: assessing the damage to buildings surrounding the World Trade Center and the response of hospitals and other emergency services.

* Dennis Mileti, University of Colorado at Boulder: coordinating the travel of quick response teams from the NSF-supported Natural Hazards Research Application and Information Center.

* Frederick W. Mowrer, University of Maryland: studying the performance of fire protection materials and systems during fires and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

* William A. Wallace, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: studying infrastructure interdependence, such as how power loss affects control systems, and ways to mitigate and respond to failures.
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Author:Reese, Susan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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