Robots aren’t just in our living rooms vacuuming rugs or in warehouses moving boxes. They’re everywhere: connecting pipes on offshore oil rigs, harvesting marijuana in Colorado and replacing batteries outside the International Space Station. They're even helping rescue refugees who are trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Robin Murphy has placed robots in some of the biggest disaster zones of the last decade: in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, above mudslides in Washington State and into rubble at the World Trade Center. She’s director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University. KERA featured Murphy’s work on robotics in 2014, in this story about the Ebola virus epidemic. Now, she’s on to using robots in a different disaster: the refugee crisis.
As millions of people have fled Syria, some have tried to take the shortcut to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the boats they use though aren't outfitted for that type of trip. Boats run out of fuel or capsize, and oftentimes, there aren’t life vests. Thousands of refugees have died trying to cross. So, last year, the coast guard off of the Greek island of Lesvos partnered with Murphy and others to see if a sort of robotic lifeguard — named Emily — could help.
Watch a video from ABC News about Emily
Emily, which stands for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, is essentially a remote-controlled rescue boat. Tony Mulligan, CEO of an Arizona-based maritime robotics company called Hydronalix, invented Emily. Since 2010, Emily robotic rafts have been used to rescue people in places like Los Angeles, but never before to help refugees abroad.
In the first 10 days Emily was used off the waters of Greece, Mulligan says the robot helped more 240 refugees make it ashore safely with the Hellenic Red Cross. But the robotic rafts could be better. At South by Southwest in Austin, Robin Murphy explained how her team is trying to make Emily more autonomous so lifeguards can save more lives.
Murphy wants to make it possible for lifeguards to send the location of a victim to the robot simply by using their binoculars. They would call off the coordinates of the victim, and a computer would automatically convert and send GPS coordinates to the robot. That way, the robotic raft would be able to arrive and help someone in the water without the lifeguard constantly having to guide it.
But, Murphy points out that from the viewpoint of the person in the water, it would be pretty unnerving to have a red raft coming at you at 20 miles an hour.
“Emily can come at you at full speed and it won't hurt you,” Murphy says. “It’s designed not to. But you’re not going to be happy. If you’re already stressed, this is not going to make it better.”
Murphy is looking into ways to use thermal cameras that can detect people in the water and automatically slow the raft down as it approaches them, perhaps even turning the raft to make it easier for people to grab hold of.
Another idea Murphy’s team is exploring is automating Emily's voice.
Right now, there are people speaking many different languages working together on these rescue missions. The lifeguards might speak Greek, the migrants might speak Arabic, and they’re often using English to communicate complicated instructions. Murphy wants to develop a sort of smart screen for the side of the raft that would feature images and audio instructions available in multiple languages.