2021 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Adam Jacoff and the Emergency Response Robotics team

Developed sophisticated testing standards to ensure ground, underwater and aerial robots have the capability to help emergency responders and the military handle disasters and other dangerous situations.

For many years, robot manufacturers, researchers and emergency responders could not be confident that the machines would work as intended in dangerous situations because of the lack of rigorous, independent testing and uniform standards. 

Can the robot maneuver through rubble after an earthquake or an explosion? Can the robot climb a ladder, find trapped victims, move through contaminated areas to protect health workers, close a leaking gas valve, or—especially important for military and public safety personnel—disable an explosive device? For those responding to disasters and other dangerous situations, these were major concerns without clear answers as the robots have come into wider use. 

Adam Jacoff and the Emergency Response Robotics team he leads at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are answering these questions with performance tests to measure and compare capabilities of ground, underwater and aerial robots. 

“The team’s groundbreaking work represents a fundamentally new, creative approach to assessing robot performance to help emergency responders ensure that they have the capabilities they need,” said Albert Wavering, the acting deputy director of NIST’s Engineering Laboratory. “Their innovative efforts keep emergency responders and soldiers safe when addressing extremely hazardous public safety and national security threats.” 

The test methods developed by Jacoff and his team have improved over the years along with the technological advances taking place.  

“I cannot overemphasize the significance of this effort,” said Philip Mattson, director of the Office of Standards at the Department of Homeland Security. “These test methods have helped guide the research and development of response robot technologies for ground and aerial systems and have been adopted and deployed globally.” 

Wavering said the test methods designed by Jacoff and his team “provide the missing link for technological innovation” by allowing responders to specify and verify desired capabilities while giving robot makers the performance-based means to measure their progress toward meeting user needs. 

“Their work is saving lives,” he said. 

The idea to form the Emergency Response Robotics Team came from Mattson’s experiences at incident sites, he said. “People would show up with robots and say, ‘Here, I have this great thing.’ But responders didn’t know what it was capable of doing and didn’t know how to employ it.”  

Work on test methods for robots used for bomb disposal was an early priority for the NIST team. Some of the methods have been adopted by NATO’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams, and one grateful NATO explosive team leader wrote: “What you design and build has saved my life on numerous occasions, and the lives of countless sailors and soldiers.”  

The U.S military, DHS and other federal, state and local entities spend tens of millions of dollars a year on robots to assist in hazardous situations and rely heavily on the NIST standards when making their purchases. The global market for robots is now in the $100 billion range.  

To rigorously assess robot capabilities in hazardous real-world situations, Jacoff and his team meet regularly with responders to identify their needs and include them in testing the robots.  

One of those individuals is Capt. Tom Haus, a Los Angeles firefighter who began working with Jacoff after he witnessed robots fail to traverse the rubble of the collapsed twin towers in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “They weren’t effective because they didn’t have the mobility to go where we needed to go,” he said. 

Haus said he has worked with the NIST team ever since. “It has been rewarding to push the envelope for robotic manufacturers to develop technologies that will help us locate victims quicker at less risk for rescuers,” he said. He has also worked with the NIST team on other issues, including testing robots that can deliver water deeper into structures without exposing firefighters to potential building collapse. 

NIST has an entire building devoted to robotic tests where the team simulates hazardous conditions and measures the effectiveness of a wide array of robots used in varying situations. 

“When we started, there was no measurement science or standards infrastructure available to objectively evaluate robotic capabilities or remote operator proficiency, so we filled that void. We now have more than 50 tests,” Jacoff said. “After helping to guide purchases, these standard tests also support credentialing of operators.” 

In addition, Jacoff co-founded an international robot competition more than 20 years ago as a way to directly compare American-made robots used in emergency response situations with those made in Japan, Germany and other countries. 

Kevin Jurrens, acting chief of NIST’s Intelligent Systems Division, said the standards created by the team “help purchasers make good decisions and know that the robots they buy have the capabilities they are looking for and will be appropriate for the emergency situations they face.”  

The bottom-line result, he said, is that “the public benefits from having a more effective response to emergency situations.”