Help Rescuers Find Missing Persons With Drones and Computer Vision

A new contest aims to help first responders leverage computer vision algorithms and drone imagery during a search

3 min read
Aerial drone image from the dataset of Mexico Beach, Florida after Hurricane Michael.
Image: Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue/Texas A&M University

There’s a definite sense that robots are destined to become a critical part of search and rescue missions and disaster relief efforts, working alongside humans to help first responders move faster and more efficiently. And we’ve seen all kinds of studies that include the claim “this robot could potentially help with disaster relief,” to varying degrees of plausibility.

But it takes a long time, and a lot of extra effort, for academic research to actually become anything useful—especially for first responders, where there isn’t a lot of financial incentive for further development.

It turns out that if you actually ask first responders what they most need for disaster relief, they’re not necessarily interested in the latest and greatest robotic platform or other futuristic technology. They’re using commercial off-the-shelf drones, often consumer-grade ones, because they’re simple and cheap and great at surveying large areas. The challenge is doing something useful with all of the imagery that these drones collect. Computer vision algorithms could help with that, as long as those algorithms are readily accessible and nearly effortless to use. 

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University have launched a contest to bridge this gap between the kinds of tools that roboticists and computer vision researchers might call “basic” and a system that’s useful to first responders in the field. It’s a simple and straightforward idea, and somewhat surprising that no one had thought of it before now. And if you can develop such a system, it’s worth some cash.

CRASAR does already have a Computer Vision Emergency Response Toolkit (created right after Hurricane Harvey), which includes a few pixel filters and some edge and corner detectors. Through this contest, you can get paid your share of a $3,000 prize pool for adding some other excessively basic tools, including:

  • Image enhancement through histogram equalization, which can be applied to electro-optical (visible light cameras) and thermal imagery

  • Color segmentation for a range

  • Grayscale segmentation for a range in a thermal image

If it seems like this contest is really not that hard, that’s because it isn’t. “The first thing to understand about this contest is that strictly speaking, it’s really not that hard,” says Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR. “This contest isn’t necessarily about coming up with algorithms that are brand new, or even state-of-the-art, but rather algorithms that are functional and reliable and implemented in a way that’s immediately [usable] by inexperienced users in the field.”

Murphy readily admits that some of what needs to be done is not particularly challenging at all, but that’s not the point—the point is to make these functionalities accessible to folks who have better things to do than solve these problems themselves, as Murphy explains.

“A lot of my research is driven by problems that I’ve seen in the field that you’d think somebody would have solved, but apparently not. More than half of this is available in OpenCV, but who’s going to find it, download it, learn Python, that kind of thing? We need to get these tools into an open framework. We’re happy if you take libraries that already exist (just don’t steal code)—not everything needs to be rewritten from scratch. Just use what’s already there. Some of it may seem too simple, because it IS that simple. It already exists and you just need to move some code around.”

If you want to get very slightly more complicated, there’s a second category that involves a little bit of math:

Coders must provide a system that does the following for each nadir image in a set:

  1. Reads the geotag embedded in the .jpg
  2. Overlays a USNG grid for a user-specified interval (e.g., every 50, 100, or 200 meters)
  3. Gives the GPS coordinates of each pixel if a cursor is rolled over the image
  4. Given a set of images with the GPS or USNG coordinate and a bounding box, finds all images in the set that have a pixel intersecting that location

The final category awards prizes to anyone who comes up with anything else that turns out to be useful. Or, more specifically, “entrants can submit any algorithm they believe will be of value.” Whether or not it’s actually of value will be up to a panel of judges that includes both first responders and computer vision experts. More detailed rules can be found here, along with sample datasets that you can use for testing.

The contest deadline is 16 December, so you’ve got about a month to submit an entry. Winners will be announced at the beginning of January.

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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