Robots Break Ground for Search and Rescue Test Facility - Video Highlights

Click here to watch video highlights of groundbreaking ceremony.

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 22, 2008) –It winds its way through smoke and flames, over concrete rubble. It avoids stray pieces of rebar, razor-sharp shards of glass and metal fragments poking out of the wreckage. Visibility is nearly zero through the toxic clouds. Still, the little robot leads the way, seeking out survivors.

It's a grim scene Robin Murphy and her colleagues have faced before, many times.  The USF computer science and engineering professor has seen it in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 and in the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah.  For her, it's not a question of if these things will happen again, but when.

The secret is being prepared, by testing the robots, sensors, and networks and providing adequate training to their handlers. As Murphy points out, it's one thing to take a new piece of high tech and try it out in the office. It's something completely different for police, firemen, or FEMA to use a robot or sensor in the hazards he or she will face following a terrorist attack or natural catastrophe.

But a new testbed under construction at the University of South Florida could help change that as researchers and developers will soon have a place to test their products under conditions as close to real life as possible, she said.

“This $2.1 million investment is a unique facility,” Murphy said. “In the early days of aerospace, universities built wind tunnels for testing aircraft. Except unlike a wind tunnel which just tested the wings, you can test the robot, the sensors, or even the network together or independently. This facility will be a national test bed for Safety Security Rescue Technology. We expect it will be a magnet for industrial and government investment in the region.”

Several of the USF robots broke ground for the future National Testbed for Safety, Security and Rescue Technologies, in the northwest part of the USF Tampa Campus. Construction is set to begin in March and will be completed in December. Photo above shows, with shovels, USF Provost Dr. Ralph Wilcox, USF Trustee Sherrill Tomasino, and John Wiencek, Dean of USF's College of Engineering. Dr. Murphy is at the table (in middle).

The facility is the result of a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and USF. Funding for the project came through Edgewood from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Murphy is no stranger to search and rescue operations. With USF's industry partners, robots have seen action at the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah in 2007, and most recently, in a parking garage collapse in Jacksonville in December.

Though it's impossible to prepare for every eventuality in an emergency, the new facility can be configured and adapted to duplicate many of the hazards that await search and rescue robots.  Smoke, fog, dust and toxic chemicals can be thrown into the mix to create a more life-like test for new sensors, such as those being developed by physics professor Dennis Killinger at the USF Laboratory for Laser Atmospheric Studies.

“I can never be able to duplicate Crandall Canyon, but here we can simulate the key parts of what we went through," Murphy said. “We could try out different things there, not only for research, but for duplicating field conditions. We can control one factor of a test, and then repeat it controlling another factor of a test.”

The facility has another unique feature as well in that robots can be tested long distance by their builders via the web.

“When we can run experiments over the net, we can save people the cost of going to the facility,” said Jenny Burke, a research scientist who is already developing a training program around the facility. "We can also use it for training. It's like a high fidelity video game.”

Such training is crucial for responding to armed attacks and emergencies, Murphy said.

"After 9/11, the Federation of American Scientists said the biggest problem with responding to such disasters was traininging," she said. "So when we introduce new technologies, it becomes even more important to train people on them and to validate them."