Image: Rescue robot
CRASAR / USF
This tiny rescue robot was put to the test in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. Now, new varieties of disaster-relief technologies will be tested amid the destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 8/30/2005 4:27:44 PM ET 2005-08-30T20:27:44

In Hurricane Katrina's wake, researchers are bringing cutting-edge technologies to the disaster area, just as they did after catastrophes ranging from the 9/11 terror attacks to last year's Asian tsunami.

The search-and-rescue tools include devices and software that can turn walkie-talkies into Internet grids when the phones are out, robots and aerial mini-planes that can look for signs of life amid the wreckage, and sensor systems that can sniff out public health threats in the storm's aftermath.

"Just as people, after the tsunami, deployed this ad hoc array of Internet boxes and sensor devices in Asia, they will come in this time and do it again," said Paul Saffo, director of the California-based Institute for the Future, who is himself a search-and-rescue volunteer.

Among the first high-tech responders was Cisco Systems, which is setting up mobile communication kits and wiki-based networks to deal with Katrina's information overload. "Just wanted you to know that we will have 'feet on the wet street,'" Cisco's Lori Bush reported in a posting to fellow members of the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue.

Some of the equipment, like the Cisco kits, can fit into a search-and-rescue effort instantly. Other gadgets are being put into service on the fly, in hopes of boosting the communication systems currently being used. And still others aren't yet ready for prime time but will be tested in real-world conditions.

The researchers who operate under the aegis of the search-and-rescue institute emphasize that they're not trying to take the place of emergency-response workers.

"It's not us saving people. It's us getting the technology to the people who will use it to save people," explained Robin Murphy, a professor at the University of South Florida who directs the Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology. "I always hate it when I hear people saying that we think we're rescuers. We're not. We're scientists. That's our role."

Murphy and her USF team are heading to New Orleans to link up with Louisiana State University's Fire Emergency Training Institute and put their tools to the test. The tool kit sounds like a laundry list for 21st-century tech:

  • Pint-size robots that can move through crevices in a collapsed building to bring water, light and two-way communications to trapped survivors. Murphy's team tested such devices in the wreckage of New York's World Trade Center after the terror attacks.
  • Three-foot-long (1-meter-long) robot planes and helicopters that can survey the scene from above and send wireless video back to the team in the field.
  • Night-vision sensor systems that can throw a virtual spotlight on objects, producing crisp black-and-white imagery while leaving the scene in total darkness.
  • "Triage sensors" that can detect signs of life from 3 feet away, based on thermal imaging or even the smell of a survivor's faint breathing. "We've got the first prototype for that up and running, and the commercial versions come out at the end of September," Murphy said.

Many of these technologies have been put to use in military settings like Iraq and Afghanistan, but haven't yet been widely applied to domestic disasters. Murphy explained that the devices generally have to undergo extensive testing before they're fully accepted by emergency management agencies — and that real-world opportunities for such testing are rare.

"When we go to the field, it's often like what we did at the La Conchita mudslide " in California, Murphy said. "It's to take advantage of some of the down cycles that the rescuers have."

In Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, Murphy plans to focus on testing the video-equipped aerial vehicles, including a modified Like90 helicopter.

Change comes slowly
She noted that the pace of technological change in the search-and-rescue field can sometimes seem achingly slow.

"There's been no real change in over 15 years," Murphy said. "You don't have a computer that's 15 years old. You probably don't have a television that's 15 years old. ... I'm really frustrated. I want to help get the technology out — and make sure it's the right technology, not just people throwing stuff out there."

David Warner, a professor of biomedical and chemical engineering at Syracuse University, agrees that emergency response agencies tend to deploy technology slowly, but sees signs of grass-roots change: "Most of the stuff they have is the same stuff they've always had, but now there are people saying, 'You know, I'm not going to limit myself to what the institution is giving me.' It's a matter of citizens saving themselves."

Warner specializes in adapting communication technologies to disaster scenes — something that got a real-time workout after last December's earthquake and tsunami swept over Sumatra.

"Communications was absolutely critical," he recalled. "The whole frickin' world was there, and hardly anybody could talk to each other. If I had a little satellite dish, I would have been God on that island."

Warner and other communication experts have a long list of commercially available technologies to choose from: "Our efforts have been to scavenge, and modify as little as possible, every piece of off-the-shelf technology we can handle," he said.

For example, DingoTel makes a USB device that can turn walkie-talkies into voice-over-Internet phones; Starband satellite receivers can extend the Internet into areas where phones don't work; PacketHop makes communication devices that knit themselves together into resilient data/voice networks; and Groove Networks can create secure virtual offices amid the chaos of a disaster aftermath.

Warner said such technologies can give first responders the capability to communicate from anywhere to anywhere — a power that was once the exclusive province of, say, ham-radio operators. "Now you can take it out of their hands, and it levels the playing field for communications capability," he said.

Beyond communications
But communications are only one part of the high-tech equation for disaster response. There's also a need for airlift capability as well as power generation.

"What you need are comms, lift and power," said Eric Frost, co-director of San Diego State University's Immersive Visualization Center and another veteran of the tsunami relief effort. In fact, aerial capability can dramatically augment communications capability, he said.

"You can have planes 'spraying' the Internet down and sucking the data back up," he said.

Saffo said sensor technologies could also play an important role, particularly for monitoring Hurricane Katrina's environmental impact on an area that has sensitive wetlands as well as extensive oil-production facilities.

"There are going to be a lot of water quality issues, such as benzene contamination in the water. ... You could quickly deploy environmental sensors for continuous monitoring," Saffo said. "I would imagine that sensors doing environmental tests would be coming in one step behind search and rescue."

The big picture
It's easy to get caught up in all the gee-whiz gadgetry, but the researchers said it's more important to focus on the big picture.

"Much of it is telecommunications, but it's really about how you use a whole bunch of things so that you are able to manage the resources for medicine, power, water and all the 20 or so major things that you need to do in the wake of a disaster," Frost said.

For Warner, the bottom line is even more basic.

"Really, the most valuable technology that we have is that we're smart humans," he said, "and anything that helps make humans smarter is probably worth the effort."

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