Team at Texas A&M using robots to aid in disaster relief

KBTX First News at Four(Recurring)
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 8:26 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KBTX) - Hurricane Fiona is barreling towards Canada’s Atlantic coast, leaving behind devastation in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos.

Dr. Robin Murphy, the Texas A&M Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, joined First News at Four to share how the robots deployed by her team can be used in disaster situations like this.

There are three types of robots they use, all of which can be used in different ways during a disaster. There are ground robots, which Murphy described as “bomb squad robots,” drones and water-based robots, which can go underwater.

When a hurricane like Fiona hits, drones are often used in the response.

“These things can fly and give you so much information, and they’re inexpensive,” said Murphy.

According to Murphy using drones that cost around $1,000 to $2,000 get the same information as a helicopter, except the drone would cost $25 an hour to use, whereas a helicopter would be around $3,000 an hour.

“You’re getting great information, cheaper and it immediately goes to the disaster responders,” she explained.

The drones have been around since 2005, when Murphy led a team that used them to help with Hurricane Katrina. With the drones, they were able to help responders know what the flooding was like and what the fastest path they could take a car or boat to rescue people was. They were also able to quickly survey the damage from the storm. In 2018, the team was able to immediately document that Florida qualified for disaster assistance.

The technology has come a long way though.

“When we first started using them back in 2005, we were just very glad that they didn’t fall out of the sky,” Murphy explained.

In about 2015 the technology improved, with the hardware becoming “very reliable.” Now the focus of their work is sifting through all of the data the drones collect.

According to Murphy “it becomes more of a question of not flying the drone and not having it fall out of the sky, but how to get the right information in the right format, the right visualization, the right way to look at it, the right highlights, and get it to the right person in the right time even when the wireless networks may be partially down.”

Drones can even be used before disasters strike for situations like Tropical Depression Nine, expected to become Tropical Storm Ian. Murphy recommends emergency managers take advantage of this inexpensive technology to do tasks like mapping out vulnerable spots.

Murphy shared how grateful she is that her work benefits such an important cause, saying “it’s such an honor to be able to help the responders do their great work.”