In 'Disaster City,' Learning To Use Robots To Face Ebola

Nov 29, 2014
Originally published on November 29, 2014 12:05 pm

About three hours southeast of Dallas, there's a city that's been hit by almost every disaster you could imagine including earthquakes, hurricanes and even bombs. It's appropriately called Disaster City.

It's a training site for first responders, but the facility is looking ahead to a different kind of disaster — infectious diseases like Ebola, and robots may play a key role.

One of the first things you see when you enter Disaster City is an enormous pile of rubble.

"It looks like chaos, but it's actually an engineered structure with a tunnel system underneath," says David Martin, director of rescue training at the facility.

He says it's a perfect place to practice finding victims after a disaster like Sept. 11.

"Rescuers can use search cameras or acoustic listening devices that are so sensitive that even if someone were doing something as minute as scratching or breathing deeply, those detectors can pick that up and triangulate their location," Martin says.

Since the 72-acre site opened more than a decade ago, 90,000 emergency responders from across the world have come here to practice skills like climbing into derailed trains and navigating mangled steel.

On one street there's a small house. It looks like a tornado has just spun through, leaving wooden shards of what was once a bed frame and a dresser. Fifty feet away, there's a mock strip mall and a movie theater.

"We've had this facility utilized right after the shootings at the theater in Colorado for a SWAT team to practice how they would deal with ... an active shooter inside of the theater," Martin says.

But the first responders who have come here have never trained for an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola. That's next.

"The Ebola epidemic has really presented a new set of issues for disaster robotics," says Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, which helps run Disaster City.

Murphy trains first responders to work with robots. Often she's on site in her van filled with gadgets.

"We've really looked at the more classic search and rescue, and we've talked about medical disasters, but more from the chemical spill or radiological like Fukushima," Murphy says. "Ebola's very different.

"So thinking about the lessons learned in decontamination, waste handling, both of the victims' waste and their sheets and towels as well as all of that protective gear that they have to throw away somehow, where robots can be helpful," she adds.

Murphy says the robots she imagines fighting infectious disease outbreaks would be less about reconnaissance and more about interaction with sick people.

"One thing is can they be telepresence?" she says. "Can they be supervisors and advisers? Can they handle waste? Can they help carry the bodies in a culturally sensitive way to the burial?"

Murphy is working with technology companies to come up with software that will teach robots new tasks, from waste handling to supervision.

"There's a lot of different robots that are being deployed, and there has to be a way for them to not just communicate back with the operator but also have a way to communicate with one another," says Andy Chang, an engineer with National Instruments, an Austin company that designs hardware and software for disaster robots.

In a few years, Chang and Murphy hope to see robots and first responders working together in Disaster City, finding survivors after a tornado, or helping to shut down an infectious disease outbreak.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There is a city in Texas that's been hit by almost every disaster imaginable - earthquakes, hurricanes, even bombs. It is called Disaster City and it's a training site for first responders. Now the city is looking ahead to a different kind of disaster - infectious disease. Lauren Silverman, of member station KERA, visited Disaster City and sent this report.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: One of the first things you see is an enormous pile of rubble.

CHIEF DAVID MARTIN: It looks like chaos, but it's actually an engineered structure with a tunnel system underneath.

SILVERMAN: Chief David Martin points to a mound of gray cement slabs that form a pyramid of nooks and crannies. He says it's a perfect place to practice finding victims after a disaster like 9/11.

MARTIN: Rescuers can use search cameras or acoustic listening devices that are so sensitive that even if someone were doing something as minute as scratching or breathing deeply, those detectors can pick that up and triangulate their location.

SILVERMAN: Martin directs rescue training at this sprawling 72-acre site surrounded by oak trees. Since it opened more than a decade ago, 90,000 emergency responders from across the world have come here to practice skills like climbing into derailed trains and navigating mangled steel. On one street there's a small house. It looks like a tornado has just spun through, leaving wooden shards of what was once a bed frame and a dresser. Fifty feet away, there's a mock strip mall and a movie theater.

MARTIN: We've had this facility utilized right after the shootings at the theater in Colorado for a SWAT team to practice how they would deal with a shooter inside - active shooter inside of the theater.

SILVERMAN: But the first responders who come here have never trained for an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola - that's next.

ROBIN MURPHY: The Ebola epidemic has really presented a new set of issues for disaster robotics.

SILVERMAN: Robin Murphy is an engineer who's pushing this disaster drill site into the future. She heads up the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M, which helps run Disaster City. Murphy trains first responders here to work with robots. Often, she's on-site in her van filled with gadgets.

MURPHY: We've really looked at the more classic search and rescue and we've talked about medical disasters, but more from the sense of a chemical spill or radiological, like Fukushima. Ebola's very different and so thinking about the lessons learned in decontamination, waste handling - both of the victims waste and their sheets and towels, as well as all that protective gear that they have to throw away somehow - where robots can be helpful.

SILVERMAN: She says the robots she imagines fighting infectious disease outbreaks would be less about reconnaissance and more about interaction with sick people.

MURPHY: One thing is, can they be tele-presence? Can they be supervisors and advisers? Can they handle waste? Can they help carry the bodies in a culturally sensitive way to the burial?

SILVERMAN: Murphy is working with technology companies to come up with software that will teach robots new tasks, from waste handling to supervision. Andy Chang is with National Instruments, an Austin company that designs hardware and software for disaster robots.

ANDY CHANG: There's a lot of different robots that are being deployed and there has to be a way for them to not just communicate back with the operator, but also have a way to communicate with one another.

SILVERMAN: In a few years, Chang and Murphy hope to see robots and first responders working together in Disaster City finding survivors after a tornado or helping to shut down an infectious disease outbreak. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.