This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.
Robin Murphy, an IEEE member, shows off her robots at a train wreck staged for rescue drills.
Dream Jobs 2009
1 September 2001 was a proud day for robotics expert Robin Murphy. It marked the opening of the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue, which was aimed at promoting an idea that Murphy and one of her former graduate students had been pushing for six years: that intelligent robots could help save lives at disaster sites.
Ten days later came the attacks of 9/11.
Murphy and three students immediately packed up their robotic gear and drove 18 hours north from Tampa, Fla., to Manhattan, where they worked alongside rescuers at Ground Zero for the next 12 days. They rarely slept or ate, and the experience left them drained. The purplish-blue light that illuminated the rubble pile at night cast a surreal glow. ”It looked like something out of The Terminator ,” she recalls. For Murphy, and for the technology she had been espousing, it was a baptism by fire.
Since then, she has used robots to help search for victims in the aftermath of eight other disasters, including the 2005 mud slides in La Conchita, Calif., Hurricane Katrina, and the 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in Utah. When she’s not promoting the use of robots among rescue professionals, she works closely with robotmakers to tailor their designs to search-and-rescue missions. And she’s educating and training a new breed of roboticists to think not just about the detailed engineering of their machines but also about how these devices might function within the larger world of emergency response.
Murphy’s interest in technology came largely through the example of her father, who was head of engineering for a huge chicken-processing plant in the small town of Douglas, Ga. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a Ph.D. in computer science, both from Georgia Tech, Murphy landed a faculty position at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden. The school had strong links with Colorado’s space-science community, and as a consequence, she says, ”pretty much everybody in artificial intelligence was looking at planetary robots.” But the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City made her rethink her research. One of her grad students, John Blitch, a major in the U.S. Army, went to Oklahoma City to assist in the rescue efforts. That harrowing experience moved both him and Murphy to apply their knowledge of robotics to aiding the victims of similar disasters. ”I made a commitment to myself to focus on rescue robots,” she says.
And that’s exactly what she did—at no small risk to her academic career. At the time, researchers in artificial intelligence considered search-and-rescue robots only a vague futuristic possibility, and the chair of her department wasn’t supportive of the direction her research was taking. But Murphy persevered, eventually landing a tenured position at the University of South Florida, where her faculty colleagues supported her then-fanciful idea that robots could usefully assist rescuers. Elsewhere, though, most AI researchers were skeptical. Then ”9/11 happened, and all of a sudden I became brilliant,” she quips.
Although Murphy’s work at USF mostly entailed teaching and scholarly research, she kept her feet firmly planted in the practical realities of rescue operations. She and some of her grad students joined Florida Task Force 3, a state-sponsored urban search-and-rescue team that specializes in locating and extricating victims trapped in collapsed structures or other confined spaces. Working elbow to elbow with safety professionals during training exercises and actual disasters proved invaluable in shaping Murphy’s research agenda. ”I love fieldwork,” she says. ”Fieldwork is where you learn something.”