Women in Science

Engineer Says Robotics Can Use a Woman's Touch

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robin Murphy is pioneering the field of rescue robotics, a key part of the response to earthquakes, hurricanes, mining accidents and terrorist attacks. Women, she says, have a wide open opportunity in this emerging and highly sensitive field.

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'SciGirls' Episode

For a taping of the PBS TV show "SciGirls," Murphy helped pre-teen girls conduct experiments to come up with the best demeanor for a rescue robot. Their findings were similar to her research: A calm but enthusiastic voice; and no blinding lights.

The most effective design for a rescue robot designed to interact with people is slow moving. It's painted yellow or orange, with lights underneath so a victim can see it approaching.


Murphy's research often keeps her out of the lab, roaming through rubble piles.

But robotics researchers can wind up virtually anywhere. In one intriguing collaboration, Murphy's students worked with Texas AandM's theater department to provide small robotic fairies for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The tiny robots interacted with both the actors and the audience.

"She and her team came to every single production meeting," said theater lecturer Amy Hopper, who directed the play. "They were very open, very generous with information and easy to talk to. The robotics students videotaped every production to gather data on how the audience treated the robots."

Murphy sees rescue robotics and the overall field of artificial intelligence--a branch of computer science that designs machines to "think for themselves"--as providing a high level of challenge, creativity, and service, especially for women.

"Where else do you find such a wide open new field of technological challenges that will have a profound societal impact?" said Murphy. "Where you will make a huge difference? Everything you do is new. I also think it requires a woman's touch," she said, "a better sensitivity, to really put people first in designing rescue robots."

Marsha Walton covers science, technology, environment and space issues. She was a producer for CNN's science and tech unit for more than 10 years. Her work has also appeared on Mother Nature Network, Appalachian Voices, and the National Science Foundation.

For more information:

Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue


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