Army of Robots Could Track Global Disasters

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    NEWSLETTERS

    For years, engineering students at UCSD have been working on a way to use robots to measure, detect and predict the flow of toxins in the air.

    "We were initially interested in responding to homeland security types of situations where a contaminant -- a  building --  explodes that has bad things in it," professor Tom Bewley said.

    Then this year there was a new concern.

    First, volcanic ash over the skies in Iceland, paralyzing air travel around the world, and now 100 days of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

    "We're very interested in how the oil is going to move and that's a hard problem because we can't see from the satellites. We can only see what's on the surface. But underneath we have a flow, like the air over the parking lot," Bewley said.

    It's that air that's giving information to the robots. On each of the machines is a device that detects the flow of the air and transmits that information to a supercomputer.

    In two minutes turnaround time, the computer is supposed to direct the robot on which way the plume is going to move. The technology could be taken far beyond a school parking lot.

    Bewley and his team of students have some kinks to work out. But it's three years of research and development with untold potential uses around the world. This one project brings together the thesis of five PhD engineering students.

    The US Department of Energy is cosponsoring the experiment.