Article Archive
Not Quite Human
Robots converge on Disaster City
Volume 25 Summer

It was right out of a science fiction movie with a plot involving machines taking over a city – in this case, the Texas Engineering Extention Service’s (TEEX) Disaster City. In reality, it was all part of a robot challenge, the the Response Robot Evaluation Exercise, sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop comprehensive standards for urban search and rescue robotics.

For four days, robots climbed stairs, navigated through a complex maze, searched underwater for submerged objects, rolled up an incline, gathered reconnaissance from the air, and even hitched a ride on a rescue dog. This year, the robots included a remote-controlled Bobcat® and a search-and-rescue robot controlled with an iPhone.

More than 110 participants and 23 robots were in Disaster City, a disaster rescue training facility near College Station, TX, in March. In addition, 22 emergency responders took over the controls for two days, put the robots through their paces, and provided feedback to NIST.

"This was the largest event so far," said Urban Search & Rescue Project Manager Clint Arnett, who coordinated this year’s event for TEEX. "We help to develop standards used for evaluating search-and-rescue robots. The robots will be standardized by their capabilities and eventually, responders will have a reference tool to allow them to pick the best robot to fit a specific situation.

"No one robot will meet all the needs, so these evaluations are important," Arnett said. "And once the evaluations are done, users and manufacturers can also try out the robots in the realistic scenarios here."

Hui-Min Huang, with the NIST Intelligent Systems Division/Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory, was one of the NIST engineers who spent a week setting up the obstacles and robot test platforms prior to the event. The inclined planes, mazes, obstacles and other test features have to be built to precise specifications to be valid, he said. Specific tests are conducted for mobility, communications, sensory (visual and auditory) and human-robot interaction.

"This is a great facility," Huang said. "Disaster City has some unique features, and also, the airstrip allows us to do line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight range tests."

"This event highlights the opportunities to synergize academia, research and applied science," said TEEX Urban Search & Rescue Director Bob McKee. "Together, we are affecting the lives of emergency responders worldwide."

This is the fourth NIST robot exercise event held at Disaster City and hosted by TEEX and Texas A&M Engineering. The NIST event is funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and overseen by Standards Executive Dr. Bert Coursey.

Billy Parker of TEEX Urban Search & Rescue says NIST officials were sold on holding the event at Disaster City once they toured the facility a few years ago.

"If you build it, they will come," he said. And the robots have been coming every year.


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