(WOMENSENEWS)–Robin Murphy’s robots don’t look human. Nor do they act like R2D2, or Rosie from "The Jetsons."
Instead they are small and flexible; built to slither through collapsed buildings, fly over wildfires or floods, and check the integrity of a bridge from underwater, sending back live video and audio.
"We’ve gone from things that look like a camera on wheels to things that look like an eight-foot long caterpillar," said Murphy, 52, Raytheon professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A and M at College Station. She’s a pioneer in the field of rescue robotics, a new and key tool for responding to earthquakes, hurricanes, mining accidents, even terrorist attacks.
Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, sent robots into the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9-11. The center had been in existence for just 10 days. That nightmarish situation taught the team a vast amount about what kind of machines work best.
Lesson No. 1: slinky and agile, like the caterpillar robot, trumps big and powerful. That’s because "snakebots" can enter very confined spaces without further disturbing rubble. They are also being designed to disarm bombs and landmines without detonating them.
Being fast on the scene is also critical. While it may take days to move in heavy equipment, robotic aircraft can fit in a couple of suitcases and be assembled and launched in 15 minutes.
Expanding Role in Disasters
With those basic rules in place, plans are underway for robots to play an expanding role in other aspects of disaster relief. After an earthquake, for instance, a small flying robot could help in long range planning for survivors by providing information about the surrounding area and how people are using it.
"Just understanding things like land use, where are refugees going to go?" said Murphy. "So we’re designing aerial vehicles that help more quickly ascertain that. A good decision early in the game can cut a year off of a recovery," she said.
Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and graduate degrees in computer science at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She encourages other women with similar educations to join her in the research because the field is so new and could benefit from female-influenced research styles.
In 1995 she was teaching at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden–working on artificial intelligence projects including the design of robots for interplanetary travel–when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed.
Career Takes New Focus
Murphy realized there was a need for robots on this planet. The Oklahoma bombing and the Kobe, Japan, earthquake, also that year, re-focused her career on rescue robots.
She said she quickly noticed that not enough was known about the relationship between humans and robots, motivating her to conduct basic research on human-robot interaction. How might accident or terror victims respond if a robot reaches them and starts asking questions?
"Studies show that robots can either calm you down or stress you out. So we don’t want victims being terrorized by this robot," said Murphy, an author or co-author of about 100 academic papers. She also gives expert technological advice to the Pentagon on robotics as a member of the Defense Science Board in Washington.
Within U.S. manufacturing, robotics represents a $5 billion industry growing by around 8 percent a year, according to a 2009 study by the Computing Community Consortium.
Women make up less than 25 percent of graduate students in engineering and computer sciences, according to the National Science Foundation, far below levels in biological and social sciences where women are about 50 percent of graduate enrollment.
Murphy and her colleagues at Texas AandM, along with researchers at Stanford University, received a $1.2 million federal stimulus grant to create a multimedia "survivor buddy," the robot personality that will interact with people in situations ranging from emergency response, to hostage negotiation, to lower-keyed settings such as healthcare assistance.
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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