Engineers to the Rescue

From building intrepid search robots to creating girders that can withstand extreme heat, engineering students are confronting terrorism in a very pragmatic way

It was immediately clear to robotics Prof. Robin Murphy that the rescue effort at ground zero could use some unconventional help. Within hours of the World Trade Center's collapse, she and her students were loading up a half-dozen prototype "rescue robots" from their lab at the University of South Florida in Tampa and heading to New York.

These squat, decidedly unglamorous forerunners of R2D2, with their headlights, infrared sensors, radio control units, and microprocessors sitting on bulldozer-style tracks, successfully pinch-hit for human rescuers - searching deep beneath the most hazardous rubble for survivors.

Although they didn't find any survivors, the robots located the remains of five people - and may have helped prevent more deaths. "We put one robot into a hole that they were going to put a man down," says Mark Micire, a USF graduate student. "They ended up losing the robot. But that $40,000 robot may have saved the life of a rescue person."

At many colleges, the response to terrorism has been a blend of emotion and intellectual debate. But at engineering schools, pragmatism has gone into overdrive. As they zero in on new technologies to thwart future attacks or help recover from them, engineering students and professors whose work once existed in the shadow of the ivory tower now find themselves in the spotlight.

Dr. Murphy, for one, understands why robots from academia haven't yet been widely used in rescue work.

"The fire-rescue community is technologically conservative," Murphy says. "You just can't have things fail in the field. If they have to stop to screw around with a robot or software that isn't working, well, that's costing lives. The technology hasn't been there until now."

Now that rescue robots have proved themselves outside the confines of the laboratory, Murphy predicts an influx of engineering-school programs to further improve the technology.

"Robots are certainly not replacing people in fire rescue," she says. "They've arrived as a tool - a very primitive tool. But in next three years, you'll see ... a new focus on it at universities. You'll see people, dogs, and robots working together at rescue sites."

Some will be very futuristic. At Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, another set of robot-rescue pioneers are working on a "snake" robot that will slither into holes too small for today's robots, she says.

Acoustic tools and lasers

But robots are just one of many relevant technologies being developed. Anthony Atchley, a professor in the graduate acoustics program at Pennsylvania State at University Park, is creating advanced acoustic tools to search through rubble for survivors.

Still other projects fall within a category known as "protective technologies."

At the University of Oklahoma, for instance, Patrick McCann, a professor of electrical engineering, is working with several students to adapt sensitive medical laser technologies that will detect explosives and chemicals even if they are miles away.

And at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Christopher Eamon and his students are refining computer-simulation software that models the impact of different explosives on various types of blast-resistant walls in embassy buildings.

Technology to analyze the effect of blasts on buildings is not new, but so far, the software has been primitive and difficult to use. Improving it will allow for quicker, cheaper testing of hypothetical situations, Dr. Eamon says. Researchers could then develop walls and windows that minimize injuries to occupants if a bomb detonates outside.

Perhaps one of the most timely protective technologies has just emerged from the labs at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Professors there say they may have created a high-tech foil for anthrax. It's a purplish beam of bacteria-destroying plasma that looks to neophytes like something out of Star Trek.

Seth Tropper, a Stevens graduate, runs a new startup company called PlasmaSol Corporation in affiliation with the university. The idea is to market the new plasma technology, which he says is already proven to destroy a related bacteria with anthrax-like properties.

"We're reaching out to share this information with various agencies to collaborate, test, and validate the applications," Mr. Tropper says. "We believe the technology would be effective [on anthrax], but it has to be tested in government facilities."

What made Tropper optimistic were tests earlier this year conducted for NASA on the bacteria bacillus subtilis. The space agency wants to find easier ways to kill earthborn bacteria that would hitch a ride on space probes and potentially contaminate rock samples from Mars, for instance.

Since Sept. 11, however, Tropper and university faculty have run envelopes through the plasma beam and now ponder adapting it for air-handling equipment for buildings. If a terrorist introduced bacteria into the air system, the ion beam could in theory kill any organisms flowing through its charged field, a bit like a bug zapper on a porch.

For other engineering students, like those at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., recent assignments have given them a profound sense of responsibility.

Each fall, Arun Varshneya gives one tough problem to a class of his top students. This year, just nine days after the World Trade Center Collapsed, he asked the class to design a new metal-and-ceramic girder that would keep a building standing despite a 2,000-degree inferno like the one that erupted Sept. 11.

Finding solace in creating new tools

To engage his students' minds and patriotic zeal in finding practical solutions to terrorism was a useful and necessary thing to do, says Dr. Varshneya, a professor of glass science and engineering. "We all had tears in our eyes after the tragedy," he says, "but ... I also decided to take up the challenge of being a responsible engineer."

Like his professor, Thomas Rizzone, a senior majoring in ceramic engineering, had the impulse to help. "As soon as I saw that building collapse, I just started thinking about why it collapsed and what could be done to prevent it," he says.

Working night and day, Mr. Rizzone's team of five has developed an I-beam that he and Varshneya believe may be able to both hold a skyscraper's weight and withstand high temperatures of an intense fire - at a reasonable cost.

"This I-beam we're developing has pretty good potential," Rizzone says. "I can't really talk about it much because we're working on a patent. Right now we're just working on reducing the costs."

Patented technology for creating such beams could be "out there" in less than a year, he says.

"I want to see the World Trade Center being built again," Rizzone says. "I don't want to see the terrorists win. This is a way to say, 'You can't defeat us.' We'll always keep coming back."


of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.