Professor, students help in New York rescue efforts

For many Americans, the pictures of destruction in New York and Washington are merely images seen on television, but for a USF professor and three graduate students, the horror became real as they helped in the rescue efforts.

“There was a tremendous amount of smoke and clouds … very dark,” said professor Robin Murphy of the College of Engineering. “You look around and go, ?Where did two 110-story buildings go??”

Murphy is involved in developing robotic technology created specifically for urban search and rescue. She said USF is one of only three universities engaged in such research.

“We?re the leaders in this area,” she said.

Murphy and her students drove through the night after the tragedy, arriving in New York early on Sept. 12. Murphy said, other than smoke in the distance, it seemed like a typical morning.

“As we got closer all of a sudden, there was just this gray dust that was like snow,” she said. “You we?re seeing tons of paper just jammed up in every crack. The trees looked like Christmas trees.”

The group from USF was one of three robotic groups on the site. They contributed six of the 16 robots used in the operation while working 12-hour shifts for 11 days. Murphy said the robots do not replace humans and dogs, but allow rescue workers to see into unsafe places.

“(The robots) can go in a place you can?t even stick your head in,” she said. “They can go farther than you can put a camera on a stick.”

Murphy said the robots, which range in price from $10,000 to $40,000, were able to locate five victims amongst the rubble. She said by observing clothing, one of the victims appeared to be a fireman.

“Perhaps the best way to describe (the bodies) is if you?ve ever seen pictures of Pompeii where bodies are covered in gray,” she said.

Murphy said the robotics program is still in its infancy. It was developed in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. This was the first time the technology had ever been used in the field.

“It?s gratifying in one sense, and in another, it?s just a start,” she said. “We?re very proud of our promise in this technology.”

Murphy said there were two types of robots used in the New York rescue operation. The first is shoebox-sized and able to change in shape from flat to triangular. This type is tethered to the operator?s control panel.

The second type is remote controlled and about the size of a small suitcase. This robot, Murphy said, is able to travel deep into voids and relay information.

“That does let the rescue workers know where to continue the rescue effort,” she said. “(It shows) other types of voids to look for.”

Murphy said versions of the robots, developed in 1996, carry two-way radio communication, allowing workers on the surface to talk to injured victims. She said rescue workers can be trained to use the larger robots in two to three hours and the smaller ones in as few as 15 minutes.

Murphy said in addition to helping with the rescue, she was interested to see the response of rescue workers to the robots.

“We sort of went chumming for rescue workers,” she said. “This technology is still very new, and we?re still learning from the fire rescue community the best way to deploy it.”

Murphy said one robot was lost on the World Trade Center site. She said gauging the success of the technology?s first real-world test is difficult.

“Success has two levels for us: We looked at success as what the firemen deemed success and whether the fire rescue community saw this as successful,” she said.

“We?re here to give the heroes that were there the technology.”

Murphy said a group of rescue workers from the Indiana Task Force was so impressed that they?ve ordered four robots for use in their home state. She said there is a training session for using the robots in November and that she will be speaking at the Hague to an international audience.

Murphy said she is excited the technology is developed to the point where it can be used effectively.

“We?ve been preparing for this for years,” she said.

Murphy said after the robots? first field test, researchers will be looking for ways to improve the design. Included is a new technology called a “snake” robot, which is designed for even smaller spaces. Among other changes will be more types of sensors, such as temperature and air quality gauges.

“We look for ways to make them smaller and easier to use,” she said.

The robots, which Murphy said are created for situations such as earthquake damage, had a tough task on their first outing. Murphy said while her team was able to remain focused in operating the robots successfully, it was amazing to see the two gigantic towers reduced to 10-story piles of rubble.

“It was surreal,” she said. “You realize this huge four-lane highway has been totally covered by the collapse of the buildings.”

She said even through the devastation, New Yorkers were helpful and upbeat.

“In the midst of all the rubble and carnage, there was the American flag in spite of it all,” Murphy said. “That was very moving.”

Contact Rob Brannonat