A company that makes small, mobile robots with thermal imaging cameras, Teledyne Flir, overnighted two of them to the Miami-Dade Fire Department in the hope they may help with the ongoing search-and-rescue effort following a disastrous condo collapse in Surfside, Florida.
Rescue workers have been on-site for seven days painstakingly sifting through the rubble of the Champlain Towers South, which suffered an extreme structural collapse on June 23. As of Wednesday afternoon, CNN reported the known death count at 16, with an additional 147 people unaccounted for.
According to the Washington Post, Teledyne Flir sent a five-pound, brick-shaped “FirstLook” robot with small track wheels and obstacle-climbing arms. It is designed to be dropped onto hard surfaces from as high as 16 feet and can navigate small crevices that humans are unable to fit into. Accompanying it is a larger “PackBot,” which is around the size of a suitcase and can carry loads of around 40 pounds. It uses a manipulator arm to move heavy objects.
“The idea behind our systems is, send the robots in first,” Tom Frost, Teledyne Flir’s vice president of unmanned ground solutions, told the Miami Herald. “They’re exactly the right tool to send into unsafe situations.”
“In a collapse like [Surfside], there are going to be very small voids that are dangerous or impossible to get into,” Frost added to the Boston Globe. “Our small, 5-pound robot could possibly enter into those voids and crawl around.”
While the Miami-Dade Fire Department has used aerial drones, sonar, and sensitive microphones as they comb for survivors and bodies, it’s not clear whether they have actually put the ground robots to use, the Post reported.
The company’s promotional videos on YouTube place a heavy emphasis on military and police applications, such as situational awareness in hostage situations, scouting fortified positions held by criminal suspects or enemy forces, and disposal of hazardous materials such as bombs. Teledyne Flir acquired these lines of robots when it bought Endeavor Robotics, formerly the defense and security division of iRobot, earlier this year. According to the Herald, the Massachusetts State Police deployed an iRobot-manufactured robot in 2013 during a standoff with the Boston Marathon bombers. (Among the most infamous uses of similar robots by cops was when Dallas police killed a mass shooter who had murdered several police officers by detonating a bomb attached to a robot with a manipulator arm, although that model was manufactured by Northrop Grumman.)
Texas A&M computer science and engineering professor Robin R. Murphy told the Conversation that such robots can be useful in disasters—responders used similar ones after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and to monitor the interior of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after a meltdown—but have their limitations, particularly when trying to navigate through a “concrete, sheetrock, piping, and furniture version of pickup sticks.” She said that unmanned ground vehicles can penetrate deeper into structures than other robots, such as snakelike cameras that can crawl through holes.
“Search cams typically max out at 18 feet, whereas ground robots have been able to go over 60 feet into rubble,” Murphy told the Conversation. “They are also used to go into unsafe voids that a rescuer could fit in but that would be unsafe and thus would require teams to work for hours to shore up before anyone could enter it safely.”
Mobility remains extremely difficult for these robots, Murphy added, due to a number of challenges. That includes when “void spaces” (air pockets in rubble) are too small for a robot to turn around, meaning it can’t return to a prior point without driving backward, and when the paths into the rubble have many twists or turns. Rescuers have to make the robots drive over a potentially wide range of surfaces ranging from concrete slabs and carpet to pulverized structural materials, and the vehicles may encounter dust, sand, sewage, water, mud, and other hazards. However, the information returned can be valuable.
“The big problem is seeing inside the rubble,” Murphy told the Conversation. “You’ve got basically a concrete, sheetrock, piping, and furniture version of pickup sticks. If you can get a robot into the rubble, then the structural engineers can see the interior of that pile of pickup sticks and say “Oh, OK, we’re not going pull on that, that’s going to cause a secondary collapse. OK, we should start on this side, we’ll get through the debris quicker and safer.”
Murphy added that to her knowledge, rescuers have never managed to recover anyone alive with this type of ground robot. On occasion, they’ve hindered responders, such as a 2010 incident in New Zealand when a robot got wet and short-circuited while searching for 29 miners trapped in a collapsed tunnel.
Authorities have yet to release detailed findings on the cause of the collapse. But the Miami Herald reported video uploaded to TikTok showed massive amounts of rubble and water flooding into the north side of the building’s basement parking lot just minutes before the disaster. During a 2018 inspection, engineer Frank Morabito had identified a “major error” where a lack of waterproofing and draining on the pool deck above the garage had caused “major structural damage” to concrete slabs below, in some cases with “exposed, deteriorating rebar.” While Morabito did not mention the risk of building collapse in the report, he noted fixing the issue would be “extremely expensive.”
The building was built in 1979, and its condo association had recently approved a $15 million assessment for extensive renovations as part of a 40-year recertification plan at the time of the disaster. According to CNN, survivors have begun raising serious questions about the gap between the dire 2018 report and the start of repairs, while Local 10 reported that a former treasurer described the association as dysfunctional, cycling through five presidents in as many years. Condo association President Jean Wodnicki wrote in a letter to homeowners in April that the building was in severe disrepair due to neglected maintenance that could have been carried out years ago and “the observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection.”
“It is impossible to know the extent of the damage to the underlying rebar until the concrete is opened up,” Wodnicki added. “Oftentimes the damage is more extensive than can be determined by inspection of the surface... When you can visually see the concrete spalling (cracking), that means that the rebar holding it together is rusting and deteriorating beneath the surface. The concrete deterioration is accelerating”