By Jim Gogek, UC San Diego
Barcelona Native Builds Advanced Disaster Tech Devices
San Diego, CA, December 3, 2007 -- When Javier Rodriguez Molina visited the Atocha Train Station Memorial in Madrid last summer, he felt a great sadness for the victims of the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings in his native country. But he also felt some hope that his advanced emergency technology work at University of California, San Diego can some day save lives in similar disasters.
Rodriguez, an electrical engineering graduate student and programmer analyst, is at work building "Gizmo," which looks like a cross between a remote-controlled toy truck and a lunar landing vehicle. But it's actually a technologically sophisticated mobile communications device that may eventually transform disaster response by collecting and transmitting in real time any information that emergency personnel need via any communications system that they're using.
"Seeing the memorial created a lot of sadness for me," Rodriguez said. "But it also helped me to realize how the work that I'm doing could help in such a terrible situation. In almost any emergency, the most important thing is immediate, accurate information. Gizmo will eventually be able to go anywhere on its own and send back in real time whatever information you might need."
Rodriguez, 24, who is from the seafront town of El Masnou on the outskirts of Barcelona, attended the Liceo Cervantes in Rome, a school that offers a Spanish curriculum. Today, he is both a student and employee at UC San Diego's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), one of the most advanced, interdisciplinary research institutes in the world.
From the Circuits Lab at Calit2, Rodriguez hopes to build many varieties of Gizmos -- even one that flies. The devices could go anywhere that it's too dangerous for humans, including urban emergencies such as hostage situations, terrorist attacks or a building collapse. The current Gizmo is the size of a remote-controlled toy truck. But future models may be alternately much smaller (so they could enter a hostage situation without being detected), or much bigger, such as a full sized truck, which could make penetrate disaster situations even in the harshest conditions, such as a hurricane.
Rodriguez was always interested in math and physics in high school, and his imagination was captivated by the robotics used by the NASA Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. But when he enrolled at UC San Diego as an engineering undergraduate, and began working alongside researchers at Calit2, he soon decided that creating robotics to complete tasks wasn't enough for him. He wanted to take it a step further to build mobile devices that can make the world a safer place.
"Using technology to try to save lives is the most important thing for me now," Rodriguez said. "I'm taking part in work that can make people more secure by helping police, helping firefighters, helping anybody who is responding to a dangerous situation."
Working under Ramesh Rao, an internationally recognized expert in emergency technology and director of the UC San Diego division of Calit2, Rodriguez is now guiding a team of engineering undergraduates who are building Gizmos, which create their own wireless network bubble wherever they go. One Gizmo can create a wireless network 200 meters in diameter; several working in conjunction can create an exponentially larger network.
The mission of Calit2 is to apply the most advanced technology to real-world problems, and produce solutions that people can actually use. One of the biggest problems for responders in any emergency situation is losing communications with one another and not knowing what's doing on inside a dangerous area. So, Rodriguez and his colleagues concentrated on building Gizmo to collect accurate information in emergency situations and transmit it back to responders immediately using whatever communications system is operating.
The data collected by Gizmos can be sent back via wireless network connection to virtually anywhere, whether it's a police command station a block away or a research laboratory on the other side of the world. Gizmos can be controlled by cell phone, laptop or a gaming joystick hooked to a computer. The platform on each Gizmo can be mounted with any kind of device - high definition cameras; super sensitive microphones; sensors that detect dangerous gases, radiation or high heat levels; or a remote controlled arm that can collect samples. Then, that information can be sent to any communications device - cell phones, lap tops, Bluetooth, or whatever type of wireless transmitter that emergency personnel are using. If one communications system fails, emergency personnel can switch to another. Like any wireless Internet system, Gizmo can send information through walls or other obstructions.
Another goal for Rodriguez is to make sure that Gizmo is relatively cheap -- under $1,000 - and constructed with many easy-to-replace parts so that they can be mass produced. That way, almost any police, fire and other emergency agencies could buy them off the shelf. If one Gizmo is destroyed in the line of duty, it can be easily replaced.
For now, Gizmos are wheeled vehicles, but Rodriguez and his colleagues already are building one with tank treads so it can go up stairs or over curbs and rocks. The opportunities for Gizmo are immense. Rodriguez envisions using them at delicate archeological ruins, underground cave-ins or even for routine security patrols.
Rodriguez is also building new types of devices for UC San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3). The center, led by Maurizio Seracini, is using multispectral imaging and other technologies to analyze great works of art and search for hidden masterpieces. Seracini will be scanning the walls of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio in search of Leonardo da Vinci's "Battle of Anghiari", which disappeared nearly 500 years ago when the palazzo was remodeled. Rodriguez is developing a robotic arm that can help capture infrared and other images. It was tested earlier this year at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, on da Vinci's "The Annunciation."