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Texas A&M professor helping in recovery efforts at Surfside condo collapse

Robin Murphy is a part of the drone team that has been aiding in search, rescue, and recovery efforts.
Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 10:23 PM CDT
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SURFSIDE, Florida (KBTX) - Two weeks ago a condo in Surfside collapsed, leaving many residents trapped.

As search, rescue, and recovery efforts began, a big part of that was the use of drones to scan the area.

Texas A&M Professor Robin Murphy, who is a part of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) nonprofit, made her way out to Surfside to assist in those efforts.

“I got down here on Saturday but the State of Florida, Florida State University got tasked to run un-maned systems, aerial systems, drones, starting from the 25th on,” said Murphy. “So they have been working non-stop with Miami-Dade Fire Department who has been using drones the minute they arrived on the scene.”

Murphy says they have been using the drones to search through the rubble, infrared scans while searching for survivors, and were the team who scanned the remaining structure of the condo for any animals that may have been left behind. Since efforts have turned to recovery, they have been helping in that as well.

As of Thursday afternoon, the city confirms there have been 64 fatalities, 200 people accounted for, and 76 still unaccounted for.

Murphy says the use of these drones is a game-changer, especially when she thinks back to helping work through the rubble 20 years ago on 9/11. She says back then, there were no drones to be used, so things that take three days now take three hours.

Below is a press release from Texas A&M University regarding Murphy’s involvement.

Dr. Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University, is assisting responders at the Surfside building collapse using small drones and robots to search for victims, inspect the damage and document evidence.

Immediately after the collapse on June 24, local responders began using drones and called in the Florida State University Center for Disaster Risk Policy, a state asset. Florida State, under the direction of David Merrick, began flying drones on June 25, the day after the collapse. As of July 7, Florida State had conducted 157 missions and collected over 28,000 photos and 652 GB of data being used by incident command. Both Florida State and Texas A&M faculty are members of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) nonprofit. Murphy joined the Florida State team on July 3 through CRASAR.

The Surfside disaster is the third largest loss of life from a collapse, following the 9/11 World Trade Center in 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. At the Oklahoma City disaster, bomb squad robots were available but too heavy and large to be used. Their weight could possibly have triggered a secondary collapse that would kill trapped survivors and their size prevented them from searching small voids deep in the rubble.

Since 1995, bomb squad robots have evolved into “Hurt Locker” styles of robots, becoming smaller and weighing between 5 and 30 pounds. The first use of small ground robots for a disaster was at the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster. Drones were first used at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and for a 2007 structural collapse in Jacksonville, Florida.

They have been used extensively in earthquakes and industrial accidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi event. While drones are being used continuously at Surfside, ground robots have been used intermittently to explore the still standing portions of the building and the underground parking garage.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Murphy focused her work on much smaller robots that could be used for such situations. She received the first National Science Foundation grant on search and rescue robotics. By 2001, small robots were available and deployed for the first time through the newly established CRASAR to the World Trade Center. There, the robots were able to penetrate 60 feet into the rubble, much farther than boroscopes, which max out at 18 feet. Small drones did not yet exist.

Murphy became the second director of CRASAR in 2002 and continued the push for small ground and aerial drones. Florida State is the leader in the use of drones for federally declared disasters and joined CRASAR in 2016. Since 9/11, CRASAR has provided robots and expertise for over 30 events in five countries including Hurricane Harvey and the Fukushima nuclear accident.

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