SAN DIEGO -- Using off-the-shelf components, a group of engineering students at the University of California San Diego have developed a low-cost, wireless robotic device to help firefighters and other emergency workers save lives.
The device, called Gizmo, was built from a remote-control toy truck and specialized electronics for less than $1,500. It can be controlled by a cell phone or computer to transmit video and other data, and could be used to inspect a bomb, explore a collapsed building or assess damage from a Southern California wildfire.
The project is part of a broad effort to revolutionize how public-safety officials respond to disasters by developing new ways to share critical information. The work, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, could lead to new commercial solutions for technical failings that compounded such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Gizmo's key innovation is that it's equipped with the technology needed to create its own wireless network, said Javier Rodriguez Molina, an electrical engineering graduate student who helped design the device.
The wireless technology developed at UCSD enables several Gizmos to operate together, forming a wireless "mesh" network that offers more reliable and flexible ways to relay data to incident commanders as the robots move about.
Creating a reliable wireless network is a boon because one of the biggest problems for first responders at the scene of an emergency is losing communications, Molina said. Sometimes a building or even a firetruck can block firefighters' radio communications.
"We're trying to make this network as robust as we can," said Molina, who has been working with Daniel Johnson, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, and others on the project.
A Gizmo equipped with a video camera also can help emergency workers see what is happening inside a dangerous area, said Ramesh Rao, director of the UCSD division of CalIT2, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Emergency workers often say a video feed from the scene of a disaster is the type of information they want most, said Rao, who recently led a National Research Council study on using information technology to enhance disaster management.
"One of the capabilities that they really would love to have is the ability to look in all the parlors, so to speak," Rao said. "They want to be able to look around the corner without putting themselves at risk."
Molina and Johnson are enthusiastic about the versatility of Gizmo's underlying technology.
In the Circuits Laboratory at CalIT2, they have built a flying Gizmo, using parts from a remote-control airplane kit to carry the battery-powered wireless components aloft.
They hope to build other versions as well. While the existing Gizmo is the size of a toy truck, future models could be much smaller, to avoid detection in a hostage crisis, or much bigger. A full-size truck could be operated, for example, in regions struck by a hurricane.
In fact, Molina said their work on the project began after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed much of New Orleans' communications infrastructure.
The UCSD team initially developed wireless networking equipment that could be carried in a suitcase. The idea was to deploy the suitcases after a disaster to help facilitate communications among rescue workers.
But Molina noted that the project set out in a new direction after he said wistfully, "It would be nice if we had a mobile platform" for the wireless communications gear.
They first tried to attach a wireless network module on the inside of a firefighter's jacket, which proved to be impractical, before they finally settled on using a remote-control toy truck.
Each Gizmo also can be equipped with different sensors. One might carry a GPS location device or sensors to detect natural gas or hazardous chemicals. The robots also could be equipped with different types of radios to maximize the capability for transmitting data.
While development of Gizmo's technology has been relatively confined to a UCSD lab, Rao said their work also represents an extraordinary grass-roots response to California's devastating wildfires.
Funding for the project came from a $3.5 million grant the National Science Foundation awarded UCSD in 2003 as part of a broader effort to find new ways of using information technology to improve disaster response.
One of the most dramatic examples of the volunteer effort came during San Diego's October wildfires, when scores of civilian experts used Google maps to widely distribute aerial fire imagery provided by military sources.
"In today's world, there is a lot of information that emergency officials don't necessarily have," Rao said. "What we need to do is build a 'fabric' that in time can pick up information from different sources and share it with anyone."
In San Diego County, developing the ability to relay real-time video images from city and county helicopters became a regional priority after the devastating Cedar fire of 2003.
Under a pilot program begun in 2004, the city and county of San Diego began installing a series of specialized microwave antennas to relay the video signal beamed from a helicopter into a high-speed data network.
Sara Diaz, who manages the regional command, control and communications project, was unfamiliar with Gizmo's video technology and declined to comment on whether it might be useful.
But the idea is basically the same."We don't care where the video comes from," Diaz said. "Our job is to get the video to the people who need to see it."