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

Since it was built by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in 1998, 90,000 emergency responders have come to "Disaster City" to climb over mangled steel and through derailed chemical trains.
Lauren Silverman
/
KERA
Since it was built by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in 1998, 90,000 emergency responders have come to "Disaster City" to climb over mangled steel and through derailed chemical trains.

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.

Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, adjusts a robot used in hazardous waste cleanup.
Lauren Silverman / KERA
/
KERA
Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, adjusts a robot used in hazardous waste cleanup.

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.

David Martin, director of rescue training at "Disaster City," stands in front of a mock-up of a government building that's been hit by a bomb.
Lauren Silverman / KERA
/
KERA
David Martin, director of rescue training at "Disaster City," stands in front of a mock-up of a government building that's been hit by a bomb.

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

Lauren Silverman
Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.Before joining KERA, Lauren worked at NPR’s weekend All Things Considered in Washington, D.C. There, she produced national stories on everything from the politics of climate change to the future of online education. While at All Things Considered, Lauren also produced a piece on neighborhood farms in Compton, Calif., that won a National Association of Black Journalism’s Salute to Excellence Award.As a freelance reporter, Lauren has written and recorded stories in English and Spanish for a variety of news outlets, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Here & Now; American Public Media’s Marketplace; Sound Medicine and Latino USA.