Book Review: Disaster Robotics by Robin Murphy

by on May 22, 2014

disaster robotics

One of my personal interests is in disaster robotics. I like them for two reasons. The first is that I like the idea of being able to try and save people (I know I could have become a doctor). The other reason I like robots is that they need to operate in “extreme terrain and operating conditions” and be very reliable.

When I heard that Robin Murphy, who probably has more experience with disaster robots than anyone alive (or not alive; is it mean to say that in a disaster post?), was writing a book on the subject I wanted to get a copy to glean more about what is required for disaster robotics and how we can apply this to other robotic systems.

One warning is that there are a lot of “3 letter acronyms” in this book, however there is an appendix at the back of the book for “Common Acronyms and Abbreviations”.

The book has 3 sections. The first is the history of rescue robot deployments, the second is looking at different types of rescue vehicles, and the last section deals with the topic of conducting field work (you can also check out my series on field work here).

One key takeaway from the first section is that the number of different disaster scenarios is almost endless. Being able to apply robots to this endless lists really requires a lot of work and different types of robots, from large to small, underwater to flying, and teleoperated to autonomous (autonomy kind of gets debunked later in the book).

Some of the tasks that robots must be able to perform (some during the same mission):
– Search
– Reconnaissance & Mapping
– Rubble Removal
– Structural Inspection & Forensics
– In-Situ Medical Assessment & Intervention
– Medically Sensitive Extraction & Evacuation of Casualties
– Acting as Mobile beacon or Repeater
– Serving as a Surrogate Team Member
– Adaptive Shoring of Unstable Rubble
– Providing Logistics Support
– Victim Recovery (after probability of survivors has dwindled)
– Estimation of Debris Volume and Type
– Direct Intervention

As of today, robots have not been used to save any human lives mostly because they have not been used/trusted in situations where human life was directly at stake. However robots have been used to prevent further damage from a disaster (cool! I did not know that). Make sure to get permission before trying to deploy your rescue robot, you can get arrested! There have been several (3) cases where robots impeded rescue attempts. In many cases where a robot was unsuccessful it was the operators fault and not the robots (I have been telling people for years that we need to focus on training operators).

This book has a nice discussion about all of the disaster robot deployments from 2001 (World Trade Center) – 2012 (Finale Emilia Earthquake). It would have been nice to see more of a discussion on robots prior to 2001 such as the ones from Red Whittaker in nuclear environments. For the most part robots pre-2001 are ignored in this book. Almost more importantly there is a good discussion on robot failures (terminal and non-terminal) and their root causes.

At the end of chapter two (and other chapters) is a nice discussion on “surprises”. These are things that you would have thought otherwise, some were learnt from long and practical experience. The one that surprised me the most was to see the author’s position on tethers. She argues that while tethers can (and have) caused failures, they are a necessary evil, and allows for more reliable communications and the ability to not worry about power and batteries. Further using a tether as a safety line can be important. The benefits of tethers is further driven home in discussions later in the book (for example in 3.4.3). I was one of the roboticists that “looked at tethers as the enemy”, but after reading her arguments I see her point and while I still do not like tethers they are not my enemy anymore.

The next section of the book goes through ground (UGV), air (UAV), and marine robots (UMV). This section of the book goes through robot sizes, their applications, common tasks, and how to choose the right platform for a given job. I like how these chapters are very down to earth and not researchy. For example the author points out how as much as roboticists love multi-agent systems and autonomy, all rescue examples so far have been teleoperated singular robots. Another interesting metric is her recommendation for operators to robots, or the human-robot ratio. She recommends 2:1 for the general case and 3:1 where tether management is required for UGV’s. UAV’s get a 3:1 ratio since you need a safety officer. I did not see a recommendation for UMV’s, however for all of these ratio’s you need to evaluate the robot and the deployment to choose the proper ratio.

One interesting thing to note was that the different classes of robots typically have different typical mission duration’s; with UAV’s being the shortest (5-20 minutes), UMV’s being in the middle (10 minutes-1.5 hours), and UGV’s having the longest mission duration’s.

The last section of the book I think is especially valuable for people in all areas where field work is required. Until this book was released I did not know of any formal guide to field work other than my testing series. If she released this book a little earlier I would not have had to write my testing series (actually I probably would have anyway).

The author splits field work into four categories; controlled experiments, exercise, concept experimentation, and participant-observer. Personally I lump the first three categories into one that could be called “made up world” whereas the last category is the “real world”. One distinction that the author makes is the difference between doing a test for the roboticists sake or for the stakeholder stake.

There are several guiding principles that the author mentions based on her experience. I can also concur that these guidelines are critical based on my experience. And they are:
– Bring the smallest number of people and robots possible. (The more you bring, the more resources you need).
– Never bring robots that have not been tested in similar environments before
– Never bring people who have not worked in the field or with the team
– Specify and enforce a clear chain of command
– Keep it simple
– Practice, Practice, Practice
– Mentally visualize everything from walking in the door, to the mission, to the return trip

I would add another one to this list:
– Bring spares and required tools

I would strongly recommend this book for anyone doing (or looking to do) disaster robotics or work in difficult environments. I would recommend this book for the last section even if the other sections were not in existence. I give this 5 out of 5 stars (I think this is my first review that I am giving 5 stars, it almost feels wrong). If you are a grad student looking for a research topic there are many suggested topics at the end of each chapter in this book.


I want to thanks MIT Press for providing me a hard copy of this book for review.

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