For Robin Murphy, 1995 was a career-defining year. Both the Oklahoma City bombing and Kyoto earthquake in Japan occurred that year, highlighting the need for small and smart robots that could search areas too dangerous for people and dogs. These events prompted Murphy to work on robots that could improve disaster response and recovery.
Fast-forward two decades and now Murphy is considered a pioneer in the field of disaster robotics and has the experience to back that up: She has studied or responded to nearly 50 emergencies in the U.S. and abroad to understand robots’ role in the situation. What’s more, she also developed robots that were used during the 9/11 response — the first reported use of a robot in a disaster situation — as well as those during Hurricane Katrina and the Oso, Wash., mudslide.
Like other technologies, disaster robotics continuously evolves as needs are identified and new tools emerge. The initial focus was ground robots, but unmanned aerial vehicles and underwater vehicles are commonplace now. “Starting in about 2011, I think if you have a disaster and you’re an agency and you haven’t figured out a way to use a small unmanned aerial system, it’s kind of surprising,” Murphy said.
As director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, Murphy works to advance the technology (currently she’s focused on the human factor and how people actually use the technology) while also traveling to disasters when called upon to help agencies determine how robots can aid the response. Through the Roboticists Without Borders program, which she said acts as “a dating service,” Murphy works to pair the best technology for a given disaster with people who can run it to meet responders’ needs. And that’s a scenario she wouldn’t mind seeing end.
“I would love to be out of business; I would be just as happy for groups to have robots on their own,” said Murphy. “I would like the data though. I love learning from the practitioners what’s working and what’s not."
Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.