IEEE Experts Answer Questions About Rescue Robots and Smart Grid

Learn how they respond in emergencies

30 September 2013

Photo: iStockphoto

Earlier this month, we asked our readers to send questions about the technology behind rescue robots and smart grid during natural disasters. Here’s what they had to say.


IEEE Fellow Robin Murphy


Q: Rescue robots are helpful for after a disaster strikes. But are there robots that can warn and protect people prior to a weather-related emergency? For example, by directing a mass evacuation or bringing in supplies beforehand, instead of after when it might be too late? 

RM: Robots are used in some situations before a disaster. A focus group of wildland firefighters concluded that having robots drive up and down the mountain roads bringing food, supplies, and information back to crews would be a huge benefit—more so than having a robot that could pump water on the fire. In some areas, an aerial robot is used to map out the coast the day before a hurricane makes landfall so that responders have the latest information.

Q: What type of information do rescue robots collect and relay to crews while out on a mission? What were some lessons learned that could help improve future missions?

RM: Rescue robots allow disaster professionals to see and act through the video camera built into them. With sensors, we can know the location of the robot to better map the affected area. Sensors that detect gas or radioactivity, or measure range, can be essential in a rescue robot depending on the disaster. However, these sensors are often big, heavy, and expensive.

There are lots of lessons that can improve future missions. In my upcoming book “Disaster Robotics” I've documented that the cause of 50 percent of the failures with rescue robots are due to poor human-robot interaction. Many systems are excellent mechanically, but their user interfaces and concepts of operation contradict well-established best practices for cognitive engineering and human-computer systems. We roboticists seem determined to repeat all the mistakes of early manned aviation and space exploration missions.

Q: There is a lot of talk about how rescue robots can go where humans cannot. Can you tell us more about what this looks like and how it can improve the aftermath of a disaster, including lives lost?

RM: Rescue robots have been deployed in more than 30 disasters worldwide since we first used them in 2001 after the attack at the World Trade Center. The majority were used to mine through ruins from collapsed buildings and bridges. For example, the ground robots that go into rubble usually look like miniature tanks, are about the size of a shoebox, and have treads instead of wheels for better traction.

As robots become more commonplace, they will be onsite more quickly to help find survivors trapped deep in rubble or give more information to first responders as to whether it is safe for them to enter. We are working with medical specialists from Texas Task Force 1 on how they can use robots to help attend to injuries and to interact with trapped survivors. Other work has explored how robots can remove rubble and haul away equipment.  

Steve-Collier Photo: Steven Collier

IEEE Member Steve Collier


Q: There is a lot of talk about the benefits of a smart-grid system, but I’d like to know what some of its pitfalls might be? Is it a perfect solution to our energy concerns, and will it really solve the problem of power outages during an emergency? If so, why isn’t it more widespread?

SC: A smarter grid is not a cure-all for every issue, and power outages can still occur. However, a modern intelligent grid can substantially reduce the likelihood of prolonged outages affecting large numbers of customers. The ability to operate the grid during unexpected circumstances is far better than the current system because of its expanded monitoring and control capabilities.

One of the challenges in implementing a smart grid on a larger scale is that it requires electric utility systems to have interoperability among their devices, telecommunication systems, and applications. A modern grid will also rely on the Internet, which opens up cybersecurity concerns. It would also require a restructuring of the utility company model.

Q: You mention on The Institute’s blog that the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative uses weather-monitoring services to track extreme weather-related events, and then analyzes that information in order to respond to impacts on their grid. Can you tell us more about this process, and if it’s a successful one? How can this help the region it provides service to when an emergency occurs? Should other electric companies be following their lead?

SC: The primary way in which utilities like NOVEC use weather-monitoring services today is to mobilize field crews more quickly and productively to the most critically affected areas. Utilities can improve the safety of those crews in the field as new storm events approach. They can also keep their customers better informed about the possibility of impending outages so that they can take appropriate measures. Finally, the utilities are better able to focus on field inspections to discover and repair equipment that may have been adversely affected by the weather event without the equipment actually failing and causing a service outage. Every utility should be incorporating this kind of intelligence into its grid operations and management.

Q: Many weather-related emergencies take place in developing countries. Is it practical to implement a smart-grid system in those regions, and if so, what are some obstacles that could prevent its adoption in those parts of the world?

SC: In most of the developing countries, the grid is already being implemented. They are getting solar, wind, and conventional fuel-powered energy, leapfrogging the current power system in the United States just as they did to a wireless telecommunication system without an intervening deployment of a wired network. To the extent that they have implemented the kind of grid that we have in the developed countries—for example, in India—they can get the same kind of benefits as we get from a modern, intelligent grid.

If you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave us a comment, tweet @IEEEInstitute, or post your question on our Facebook page.

Learn More