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Robots to explore Ike’s aftermath



The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University will be inspecting the extent of damage and mapping the underwater debris field on the Rollover Pass Bridge on Thursday and Friday (Dec. 18 and 19) using a small robot pontoon carrying a new type of underwater acoustic sensor. The bridge, which collapsed during Hurricane Ike, is located near Galveston.

The underwater sensor that will be used produces clearer video, even in water that may be muddy. If successful, the use of the robot pontoon could cut the time involved in determining how to repair a bridge and how to remove the bridge that failed from one month to just a few days. It could also eliminate the need for divers to risk their lives trying to see and move around debris in cloudy, fast-moving currents. The robots could also be used to inspect aging bridges, providing early warnings of structural problems.

A team of roboticists, civil engineers and disaster experts from Texas A&M will spend two days evaluating the sensors, general performance of the robot and whether or not they are suitable for use by transportation departments and response organizations. The team will also experiment with miniature tethered underwater vehicles that could be eventually deployed by Sea-RAI (Sea Robot-Assisted Inspection). The mini submarine could swim behind pilings and debris, while the more powerful “mother” boat could keep the submarine “daughter” from being swept away.

“The rebuilding process after natural disasters is costly and time consuming due to the significant amount of inspection and assessment that is required to safely rebuild, says Dr. David Trejo, division head of the Constructed Facilities Division at TTI and the Career Development Professor I in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M. “This system has the potential to significantly reduce costs and time, allowing the community to return to ‘normal condition’ sooner.”

CRASAR first used the Sea-RAI robot in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

“Our mission is to spot and shape technology that can be used for emergency response,” says Dr. Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR and the Raytheon Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M. “Getting the robots, sensors and civil engineers together at a real disaster site allows us to develop a truly useable system.”

What makes the robot unique is its small size and the ability to operate in mere inches of water. The robot looks like a five-foot long Hobie Cat sailboat, but instead of a sail, the robot carries more than $500,000 worth of equipment. The robot can autonomously survey areas using GPS or can be controlled remotely. The idea for the robot originated with Dr. Eric Steimle at the University of Florida for inspecting wetlands, but was quickly co-opted by Murphy. With funding from the Office of Naval Research, CRASAR refined the Sea-RAI, increased its autonomy and interfaces, and added a miniature helicopter.

Using robot boats is just one of the many firsts for CRASAR, which was responsible for the first robots to be used for search and rescue. This occurred following the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. The center was also the first to use small aerial vehicles following Hurricane Katrina. CRASAR keeps a cache of robots available on demand for use by responders. This interdisciplinary team of computer scientists and civil engineers has the potential to make a significant and positive impact on how post-disaster inspection, assessment and reconstruction occurs, saving both time and money.

Contact: Dr. Robin Murphy,  Dr. David Trejo
Texas A&M University

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