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A teleoperated robot looms over rescue dogs with wearable robotics at the booth for the SERS team. Graduate student Kevin Huang (inset) and a ground-based drone.

A teleoperated robot looms over rescue dogs with wearable robotics at the booth for the SERS team. Graduate student Kevin Huang (inset) and a ground-based drone.

(Inset): Howard Chizeck

Research goes to the dogs—and the drones

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A cyborg dog, an aerial drone, and a robot walk into a bar and …

You haven’t? Okay, so the bar in question was just hit by an earthquake and several patrons are still trapped inside. The local emergency response team dispatches a rescue dog equipped with sensors and other devices. The dogs sense the survivors and alert central control, which sends aerial drones to scout the otherwise unnavigable disaster area.

Cell service is down, but the patrons are able to communicate with first responders by connecting to wireless routers set down by the drones. Ruling out a live rescue team because of the danger, the first responders instead send in a remotely operated robot, which leads the patrons to safety.

That scenario might still be science fiction, but a team of U.S. scientists is working hard to make it a reality with a project called the Smart Emergency Response System (SERS). Last week, the group brought a prototype to Washington, D.C., as one of 24 participants in the SmartAmerica Challenge, a novel event designed by the Obama administration to demonstrate how federally funded research can deliver tangible benefits to society.

“Basic research often ends up with just research,” said Sokwoo Rhee, who helped devise and implement the challenge during his 12-month stint as a Presidential Innovation Fellow. “That is not enough of a goal for the SmartAmerica challenge. How does the research benefit society and human life? We wanted to shift the discussion in that direction.”

The White House created the innovation fellows program 2 years ago as a way for government agencies to enlist outside help in tackling important technological challenges. Rhee, a serial entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, volunteered to run a project on improving the interplay between smart devices, a research field called cyber-physical systems (CPS).

Rhee and another fellow, Geoff Mulligan, looked at hundreds of CPS research abstracts from academia, industry, and the federal government and selected the authors of 65 to take part in the program. In December, the participants came to Washington for a day with the goal of expanding their current CPS-related research into something with clear societal benefits.

“It was a very random process,” said Yosuke Bando, a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in Cambridge who was working on a smart phone middleware application that allows users to exchange pictures and other data based on proximity instead of relying on Wi-Fi or a cellular signal. “They wanted to make us form teams in an autonomous and spontaneous manner.”

The SERS team—15 researchers from nine academic institutions and companies spread across the country—came together after the participants realized their individual projects could be modified to make disaster relief efforts more effective.

Each team had only 6 months to expand and integrate their projects, which ranged from enhanced water distribution to smarter energy production. The researchers received no additional funding and had to pay for any equipment and travel expenses themselves.

Given their far-flung locations, the SERS team used weekly teleconferences to refine their ideas. In May, they met for the first and only time before the expo, spending 3 days at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle.

The room was filled with soldering irons, welding torches, robots, dogs, and lots of graduate students. “We spent all day trying to get our projects to work together,” said Howard Chizeck, a SERS member from UW Seattle’s BioRobotics Lab. “And then we were at it again the next day, and most of the day after that!”

The hard work paid off.  “Despite the obstacles, we were able to integrate everything we needed to for the expo,” Bando said.  

Rhee and Mulligan’s fellowship ended this week, but the White House hopes that several of the SmartAmerica teams will agree to scale up their projects under a new challenge, called Global Cities. The SERS team hasn’t figured out what’s next, but its members seem eager to continue working together.

“Some of the collaborations will definitely persist,” Chizeck said, “and there will be some new, smaller projects. I don’t know if you could reproduce this or not—but would I do it again? Absolutely!”