TAMPA — Where disasters strike, Robin Murphy and her robots rush in.
The World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina. The mountains of Utah after the mine collapse last year that trapped and eventually killed six workers.
Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida, uses her one-of-a-kind robots to search through dark, hard-to-reach places for survivors and clues.
Now Microsoft is giving her and a Stanford University professor $500,000 to create an emergency robot "friend."
The Survivor Buddy would act as an emergency companion to people stuck in the crossfire of snipers or under the rubble of an earthquake-ravaged building like the ones now littering China.
She envisions a robot that plays soothing music to trapped victims and features a monitor showing the faces of loved ones and rescuers trying to reach them. It will deliver water and transmit a victim's vital signs to doctors. And it should be friendly, she said.
"It's a relatively small grant, but it gives us a chance to jump-start these crazy ideas and this hardware," said Murphy, 50. "This money is hard to come by because this idea of human-robot interaction has only recently been recognized as an important scientific field."
The robot that Murphy and her student researchers create with Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass could forever change the way robots are used in medical care and in day-to-day routines. It could also garner attention for Murphy and for USF.
"She understands what it's like to do very good research in engineering and apply it for human benefit," said Karen Holbrook, USF's vice president for research and innovation. "And in her case, it's a national community outreach."
Murphy, director of USF's Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology, said she could not live with herself if she weren't pushing the boundaries of robotics to help rescuers and victims. The Microsoft grant is just the latest push.
"It would be a tragedy to have seen what I've seen, and to know the technology out there, and not put it to use," she said.
"If I don't do it, who will?"
Inspiration in fiction
Murphy has short, tousled auburn hair. Her music taste runs to Foo Fighters, and her dress is casual cool: think khaki cargo pants and tops, comfy sandals.
She takes great pleasure in really bad, cheesy science-fiction movies. "It was so wonderfully bad!" she'll insist.
And she reads so much science fiction she names her robots after female authors of the genre.
Why? "Because they are women who have seen the future."
Murphy was 10 years old, living in her native Mobile, Ala., when she found her future.
A mechanical engineer, her father collected science-fiction works. One day she picked up The Green Hills of Earth, a short story by Robert Heinlein.
She felt an immediate connection to the female engineer character, who convinces her male counterparts she can work beside them just fine.
"The idea that women could be engineers, and have fun, that became the motive," Murphy said.
She went to Georgia Tech University, and by 1992 had her bachelor's in mechanical engineering and her master's degree and doctorate in computer science.
Three years later, she watched TV footage of workers trying to save people trapped inside the Oklahoma City building bombed by domestic terrorists.
Through USF's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, the only facility in the world that develops air, sea and ground robots for natural disasters, she set out to create robots designed for disaster rescue.
The robots' first test came after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Her robots could go far deeper into the wreckage than rescue workers and their trained dogs, and they could go while the rubble continued to burn.
Then came hurricanes Charley, Wilma and Katrina. Murphy and her robots rushed in, beckoned by state and federal officials.
She spent her 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah last year, trying to get a robot outfitted with cameras and other equipment into the space where six workers were trapped.
It was exhausting, frustrating work. The workers died before rescuers could get to them. Yet Murphy takes comfort in knowing she tried, that she did all she could to help.
What really frustrates her is seeing footage from the recent Myanmar cyclone and the China earthquake.
She is too far away to help, and those countries don't have ready access to robots like hers.
"This technology exists, but they need it in China, in Australia, all over," she said.
"My dream is that one day you'll see rescuers and dogs at a disaster site, but if you don't see a robot you'll say, 'Where are they?' because they'll have become so commonplace. They'll do things dogs and people can't."
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.