After Hurricane Ian, Robots To The Rescue

12:13 minutes

A white flying drone with a camera facing the viewer flies on the lower right hand corner. In the background, dark grey storm clouds are forming.
Credit: Shutterstock

Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida Wednesday, with winds over 150 miles per hour, high storm surge and heavy rains. As the storm, now weaker, is projected to move northward, search and rescue operations are setting out to assess the damage – with help from robots, both flying and swimming.

Producer Christie Taylor talks with David Merrick, who is leading the emergency management team responsible for flying drones over areas hit by disasters like Ian, about what it takes to use robots in these contexts and how they help speed up response and recovery efforts.

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Segment Guests

David Merrick

David Merrick is director of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida on Wednesday, with winds over 150 miles per hour, high storm surge, and flooding rains. Search and rescue operations are out assessing the damage that’s already been done. And helping that assessment are search and rescue robots. Producer Christie Taylor is here with more about that. Hi, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey there, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what kind of robots are we talking about here?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, we’re talking about robots that can crawl through rubble, fly over flooded neighborhoods, or even swim to look for, for example, broken bridges. They can go where people can’t, and they can collect really high-resolution images a lot faster than a person could, too. So that way, the more limited human responders can figure out where to go for rescues and, later, infrastructure repairs.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the idea here is that the robots do the search part, they map where flooding is worst, all that stuff that they do best, and then the humans get to do what we do best.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right, exactly. And there’s even some research out there saying that faster response times, even by one day, can not only save lives but also shorten the ensuing recovery period by months or even years. David Merrick is director of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University. He’s an emergency management expert who focuses on those flying robots, so drones and other unmanned aircraft. And he is, as we speak, sending those aircraft out across Florida. I got to talk to him first thing yesterday morning. His team was just about to roll out from the slightly noisy convention center in Orlando that’s being used as emergency management headquarters.

DAVID MERRICK: We’ve been here in the Orange County Convention Center now for a day and a half. We spent yesterday here. The wind is going pretty good outside right now, but it looks like the storm has moved south of us pretty well. So this morning, we’re going to pack our vehicles. And the hope is, as soon as the winds get below a safety threshold, which is typically tropical storm force winds, so 39 miles an hour, we will start pushing forward into the impacted areas.

The mission is to support the urban search and rescue with remote sensing. So we’re going to use drones, a variety of fixed-wing and multi-rotor, to kind of provide a snapshot of what’s happening in front of where those USR teams are going to go. And we’ve got a lot of new technology, and we have multiple Starling units with us that should actually allow us to push live information back to decision makers.

Sitting right here, it’s dark outside. We know it’s bad, but we don’t know specifically where. So we’re going to try to get these remote sensing tools into place to help make those decisions, which is an overly simplistic way to look at it, but that’s kind of how it’s going to break down today.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and when you talk about robotics in general for hurricane response, I mean, what are the different roles they can play in the different phases?

DAVID MERRICK: There are a lot of different roles that we can use robots for. I mean, the remote sensing is kind of the easy lift. It’s kind of a low-hanging fruit. It’s the one that everyone fully understands. We use robots in structural collapses for inspections of areas that we can’t put people in a safe way.

And we’re prepared to do some of that. We have some smaller drones. We don’t have any ground robots with us on this event because we’re kind of tasked with moving quickly. But there are technologies to– anything that’s dirty, dull, and dangerous, right, where we can put a robot instead of a person. And that includes boats with sonar and submersibles and all kinds of things that will probably come into play later on in this event as we look at clearing waterways and inspecting bridges and that kind of thing that– all these critical tasks that have to be done before we can kind of get back to normal.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Right now, we have flying robots gathering information. Later on, we might have swimming robots gathering information.

DAVID MERRICK: That’s correct. There’s a lot of bridges, a lot of bridges that are not– that have to be certified. And that includes looking at their pilings. What’s underwater? What’s up underneath the bridge? What’s the situation there? There’s been some record storm surge, a lot of water where it shouldn’t necessarily be. And all that needs to be looked at before we can put that bridge back into service.

Then, of course, there’s always the concern of structural collapse. We’re going to cross our fingers and hope that we don’t have a major issue on that, that it’s mostly flooding that we’re dealing with. But our team was at Surfside in 2021 doing a lot of repetitive monitoring and data collection to support that collapse scenario. So a lot of things we can do with robots.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Well, and for folks who are in Florida right now, they’re facing the stress and fear of this hurricane right now, how do you connect these robots to them potentially having a better experience of Ian and returning to their homes sooner?

DAVID MERRICK: Everything in emergency management, we focus on timelines. How fast can we get things done, right? There’s never extra time. And so the robots, whether that be flying robots or ground robots or swimming, are all going to help us compress that timeline and help us make better decisions, get the better resources in the right place at the right time.

That’s the huge trick. We’ve got a large area to cover and a relatively small number of responders staged up. So we’ve got to be smart about where they go. So the robot flying through the air is going to help us speed everything up, at least on paper.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So are these robots as robust to those challenges as human-powered technology might be?

DAVID MERRICK: Probably not, which is why we carry a lot of them. We do view them as pretty much disposable in these situations, right? It’s not like we’re going out with one aircraft or two aircraft. We have over 30 aircraft ready to go.

We’re not going to fly in a risky– well, we will fly in a risky situation. We’re not going to fly in a reckless manner. Let’s go with that. But life safety and getting that information trumps whatever happens to the $2,000 aircraft. That is pretty disposable.

However, the conditions that I’m looking at outside right now as the sun comes up here in Orlando is there’s not manned aircraft flying, either. And the wind thresholds, that 39 miles an hour, that’s just for safety on the roads. We’ll push forward. We may not be able to fly. We won’t be able to fly everything. We have some aircraft that we have in the past flown in pretty significant winds.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Do you have a technological wish list for what robots could do, but they can’t yet?

DAVID MERRICK: I do. And some of it is realistic. Some of it is maybe a little more far fetched.


DAVID MERRICK: We’re working on an NSF project right now that’s in cooperation with Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University looking at what robots may have been able to do at Surfside, the condominium collapse in the summer of 2021, which was a very unique-looking event as far as what the makeup of that rubble pile looked like and what kind of robots could have actually gotten in there and gotten underneath and how small would they have had to have been. And so that’s one example.

I really look forward to the day– and I don’t have a doubt that it’s coming– where the robots are smaller. They’re entirely autonomous. It doesn’t necessarily require us to drive into the impact area and launch these aircraft or boats or whatever else. And we can do that from a long way away and control that, a swarm of aircraft or robots that’s going to go out and capture all this information rapidly and autonomously and then feed that information back.

So from something that’s a couple inches long that can get into a collapsed structure to swarms of aircraft that are collecting data, all of these things are the wish list, right? And on the more practical side, I just want more power, more time to operate, in the same smallish packages, without having to get something that’s the size of a car.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. Well, and you mentioned the collapse at Surfside last year. Are there other disasters where we’ve begun to learn more about the potential usefulness of robots or the actual usefulness of robots?

DAVID MERRICK: Certainly. It comes back to that concept of dirty, dull, and dangerous. Anything that we can’t put a person into, whether that be a hazardous material type– even not a disaster concept, but we get hazardous materials incidents all the time, whether that be a chemical spill or whatever else.

And the way that’s mitigated and dealt with now is we’ve put humans into protective gear, and we send them into what’s called the hot zone to make sure that– to really evaluate what that is. And this could be happening somewhere right now– not in Florida, not in the middle of Ian– and a robot would be a perfect tool for that. And in many places, it’s becoming the tool for that, right?

But the things that we’re learning through robots and looking at what NOAA is doing with– and Saildrone and capturing data from inside a hurricane– that is not a place that any sane sailor wants to be. But there you go. You know, I believe we’re making progress on being able to drop robots out of aircraft to fly into hurricanes and see what’s going on.

And in fires out West, the wildland fire, there’s not a season anymore. It’s an ongoing thing. Those robots are being used there to gather information about how is the fire behaving, and how is the weather impacting it, and where is it going, and where do we best put resources? So I think it’s fairly safe to say that any type of disaster that we deal with on a regular basis should have a robot in it. We should be automating some of that.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, with that in mind, does this feel like it is dangerous work for the human people who are deploying these robots?

DAVID MERRICK: Yes, and that’s why I do look forward to the day where we can just push the metaphorical button from a long way away and fly the drone in and get good information. We’re not there yet. Unfortunately, we’re still– when we leave here today– and actually, I’m looking through the glass right now. In the wind, somewhere in Orlando, a power line has just gone down and is sparking pretty crazily.

We’re going to have to drive into this, into a situation that is not necessarily safe for people. And I’d like to avoid that. We can’t avoid it completely because we have to go into these places where people need help. But if we can do that smarter and minimize that risk by using autonomous systems, then I want to see that happen.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, I wish you very good luck and a safe couple of days ahead of you, David. Thank you so much for the time this morning. And I hope everything goes as smoothly as possible for you and your team.

DAVID MERRICK: It is my pleasure, and it was great to be here. Thanks very much.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: David Merrick is the director of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University. He joined us from Orlando. I’m Christie Taylor.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks, Christie. And our thoughts are with everyone in the path of Ian this week as well as the first responders on scene.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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