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USF professor a mine of robot expertise

Robin Murphy, a professor in the department of Computer Science and Engineering, has been recognized internationally for her work with robots during disaster search and rescue missions. Murphy, who has a doctorate in robotics from Georgia Tech, has been with USF since 1998.

She is noted as being the first to exhibit ground, air and sea robots used in responding to numerous disasters such as the World Trade Centers, Hurricane Katrina and, most recently, the Midas Gold Mine collapse that occurred in Utah last August.

She is also the director of the Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology (ISSRT), a group conducting research in robotic systems intended for use in the improvement of homeland security.

Oracle: What do you do here at USF?

Robin Murphy: I’m a professor of computer science and engineering and also director of the Institute for Safety Security and Rescue Technology (iSSRt), which is a state Type II center that hosts the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR).

O: How did you become involved with the rescue search for the miners in Utah?

RM: ISSRT has been working (for) the Mine Safety and Health Administration since 2005 through an agreement between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Labor. CRASAR director of operations, Sam Stover, and I assisted with a mine rescue at the Newmont Midas Gold Mine in Nevada at the end of June.

O: What were some of the challenges you faced in Utah?

RM: The Utah response was the most difficult I’ve ever been associated with, both in terms of the difficulty of the task and in the logistics. We knew that the task was really three different tasks, each of which could have used a specialized robot. The first task was for a robot to go down up to 2,000 feet through an 8 7/8 inch encased borehole. The second task was for the robot to go up to 1,000 feet of the mine floor through deep mud and climb over rocks. The third task was for the robot to exit the borehole and transform into a shape better suited for traveling on the floor, then land on the floor.

O: What was the overall result of the mission in Utah?

RM: We were able to confirm the suspicions that the mine had totally collapsed in that area. For the families, they had some peace of mind knowing that every effort had been made.

We were able to enter two of the boreholes. One of the boreholes was simply too tight for the robot to get down, possibly due to shifts in the strata due to the micro-seismic activity or an artifact of the drilling. We got to 10 feet of the mine cavity before getting blocked.

When we got down to the second borehole, which was eroding and spilling at least 8.5 gallons of water a minute, there was nothing to see except large boulders of coal and mud – the mine had collapsed in that area and so there were no openings to search that the robot could get through.

On the way back up the hole, the borehole began to collapse, and 52 feet from the surface the electronics canister in front of the robot was caught in a collapse. After two days of effort, the tether snapped and the robot was lost.

O: What is the most rewarding part of your work?

RM: Getting closer to having the technology ready for the responders to save someone’s life. If we at USF were not pushing for this – if we weren’t documenting what works, what doesn’t – no one else in the country would be doing this.

O: What do you see as far as the future of robotics being used in society?

RM: I see the future of robotics splitting along three applications: entertainment, government and health care. I, of course, believe in the use of robots for fire rescue, law enforcement and other civilian applications. But I see the health care market as the real killer application.