Robot testing highlights CHDS, NPS partnership

Lt. George Hough of the New York City Fire Department used his course paper to analyze how robots could enhance the capabilities of first responders.
Particularly, Hough examined utilizing robots for emergencies in under-river and underground tunnels in course paper in the Technology for Homeland Security class, an issue he had witnessed first hand working to develop standards for utilizing robots for search and rescue operations. This work evolved into a plethora research outside the classroom.

Since 2005 Hough has been involved in a project sponsored by U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Office of Standards that tasked the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with the responsibility of developing performance metrics and test methods for robots to be used by members of 28 Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams to assist with operations at disasters and terrorist events. Part of the impetus behind this DHS effort resulted from the issues encountered when employing robots at the World Trade Center event in 2001. 

1) Hough’s course paper centered on tunnels, with an emphasis on those in New York City, and what kind of communications infrastructure may be required to facilitate using robots for emergency situations in those tunnels. He set the stage for his research by outlining what was at stake in New York City: Some 4.7 million people per day ride the city’s subway system. Subways have been the targets of attacks in London, Moscow and Tokyo in the past; and, in 2004 New York City Police foiled a plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station in New York. The paper went on to outline the technical challenges and vulnerabilities in using robots and the necessary communications signals to operate them.
Moreover, Hough used CHDS class assignments as an opportunity to understand and address problems that were encountered in trying to wirelessly operate robots on Sept. 11, as well as the ones that he witnessed at the NIST/US&R robot test events in Nevada, Texas and Maryland in 2005 and 2006. 
At these training events US&R team members operated robots in typical training scenarios such as rubble pile maneuvering, stair climbing, and stand-off detection applications. These tests exposed reliability issues with the wireless communications used to control the robots.  From the data collected by NIST, Hough learned that one of the key issues boiled down to interference between wireless robots due to them operating on the same radio frequencies in an uncoordinated manner. The data from this exercise became the subject of his strategy memo in his Intro to Homeland Security class and was published jointly with Dr. Kate Remley and other participants from NIST for the International Symposium for Advanced Radio Technology (ISART) 2007 conference, “Standards Development for Wireless Communications for Urban Search and Rescue Robots.” 
In addition to interference, radio signal degradation due to operation in challenging radio environments, such as weak-signal and highly reflective environments, is known to be a significant limiting factor in wireless communications. This issue became the subject of Hough’s Technology of Homeland Security course paper and provided a basis for a significant part of his thesis work.  Hough endeavored to model the loss of signal strength in a variety of challenging radio environments such as tunnels, urban canyons (streets with high buildings alongside) and through buildings. CHDS Professor Richard Bergin placed Hough in touch with Dr. Alex Bordetsky of the CENETIX laboratory at the Naval Postgraduate School. Bordetsky provided an opportunity for Remley to bring her team to California to collect data in a former mine tunnel as part of Boredetsky’s regular wireless exercises for his research with the military. Hough participated in the three-day data collection exercise, which included collecting radio propagation data and also inserting a robot into the tunnel to measure its performance. The data collected were analyzed and compared against a standard model for tunnel propagation. The results became part of a larger study of three additional radio environments released in April 2008 under NIST Technical Note 1546 – Measurements to Support Modulated-Signal Radio Transmissions for the Public-Safety Sector. Shortly after this Technical Note was released, CNN picked up on the results and conducted an interview with Dr. Remley, Dr. Christopher L. Holloway, and Hough and released it as a short news segment, “New Communications Tools Help Emergency Responders.” 

2) After graduation Hough collaborated with Remley on further analysis of the robot data from the tunnel experiment. This was published at the Performance Metrics for Intelligent System Workshop in August 2008.  The paper “Wireless Communications in Tunnels for Urban Search and Rescue Robots” was chosen for a conference proceedings book chapter.  It was expanded to include additional work from Hough’s thesis and published as Chapter 9: Measurements to Support Performance Evaluation of Wireless Communications in Tunnels for Urban Search and Rescue Robots, in the book Performance Evaluation and Benchmarking of Intelligent Systems – Springer (2009). 

3) While his thesis work contributed to furthering applied research in the area of wireless signal propagation in tunnels and other urban environments, it also provided a foundation for presenting a case for acquiring spectrum in frequency bands that have desirable radio-propagation characteristics. Hough’s thesis was provided by Remley to the National Association of Bomb Squads working group that is chaired by a representative from the FBI. Many of the communication issues involved with robots to be used in search and rescue and fire department operations apply equally to bomb squad operations. The main conclusions supported policy recommendations for obtaining suitable radio spectrum to enable improved wireless control of robots.
A final intent for Hough’s thesis work was to examine issues for acceptance of new technology such as introducing a robot into a major urban fire department’s operations.  His thesis introduced a model for how the wireless control affects technology acceptance and looked at the interrelationship of three circles of influence: the physical environment (tunnels, high rise buildings, etc.), the radio environment (protocols for sending radio signals), and the operational environment (whether the robot fits into the operations easily).  The knowledge gained from looking at the problem from this perspective should prove useful for integrating robots into future fire department operations.


Associated file: Hough’s Paper

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