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USF sends robotic aid to Gulf Coast

USF’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) has been using two kinds of compact, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to explore the devastation on site in both New Orleans and Mississippi.

The UAVs, which returned the morning of Sept. 9, were deployed on Aug. 30 to the French Quarter in New Orleans, but destroyed routes forced them to turn around just miles from the city limits, according to a USF press release.

The UAVs were then deployed to Pearlington, Miss., a town hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. While there, the UAVs searched flooded houses for about two hours. The data showed no survivors were trapped, according to the press release.

USF is the only university in the country which has its own research center designed specifically towards safety and security in an emergency response situation, according to Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR.

“There are a number of universities doing research in this emergency response field. USF is unique in that they do the research and take it into the application mode. We see the end result and how it performs,” said Robert Carnahan, associate dean of research at the College of Engineering.

The Louisiana State University Fire Emergency Training Institute asked to use the UAVs to assist in the relief effort just days after the hurricane struck.

The technology for building the small UAVs, which is funded by the National Science Foundation/university consortium, has been in development for the past year. According to Murphy, testing of the vehicles has actually been going on since Hurricane Charley struck Florida’s Gulf Coast in 2004.

One of the vehicles, which is only four feet in length, resembles a miniature plane and can provide video footage from distances ranging anywhere from 100 to 1,000 feet. The vehicle has even been said to detect whether any people may be in the surrounding area. The aircraft is battery operated and only needs about 50 feet to land, making it the most practical vehicle to gather footage from the submerged areas.

The other UAV, referred to as the T-Rex, is a type of miniature helicopter that provided rescue officials with views into homes and areas otherwise inaccessible.

“Structural engineers have never been able to get to the third and fourth stories of buildings without using a forklift or a truck to tear them down first,” Murphy said. “These vehicles give them the opportunity to assess the damage inside the buildings, rather than just on the outside of the buildings.”

In her observation of the destruction in Mississippi, Murphy said that it was nearly impossible for any other kind of larger aircraft to get close enough to the victims, because the surrounding area was completely submerged, leaving no room for landing. That’s when the UAVs became an asset in assessing the damage done to the area.

With the T-Rex hovering above the flooded grounds, up to 250 feet in the air, the aerial views provided were as best as they come. Unlike last year’s Hurricane Charley, damage from Katrina proved to be far more devastating, as many homes were completely destroyed.

“Hurricane Katrina was far worse than Hurricane Charley last year,” Murphy said. “With Charley, there was roof damage, windows were out, and there was a lot of damage done from tree branches being thrown around in the wind; but for the most part every house remained standing.

“With Katrina it was the exact opposite. The damage was so severe that only a couple of houses survived in an entire neighborhood.”

According to Murphy, there’s a very good chance we could see another rescue expedition from the UAVs sometime soon this hurricane season.

“The rescue teams call us when they need our assistance,” she said. “As soon as we get the call, we make the trip out to the area and send the vehicles off to help in the relief effort.”

Rescue teams from across the nation are familiar with CRASAR and are aware of what valuable assets these vehicles can be in critical emergency situations. In the past, CRASAR has also been credited with introducing the small ground-exploring robots at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.