After the Flood: How Robots Can Help Us Understand Earth and Save Lives

After the Flood: How Robots Can Help Us Understand Earth and Save Lives

Sean Halpin — November 8, 2017

It’s no secret that folks at Liquid Robotics love the ocean, and I proudly include myself as one of our robotics and ocean loving nerds.

For quite a bit of my adult life I worked at sea 6-8 months a year. It was tough on my family, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You see, the ocean is majestic—equal parts axe murderer and beauty queen. It can make you feel larger than life, but also so small. Have you ever been in a storm at sea? It’s something else. That giant ship you are on is making noises straight out of a Godzilla movie, and it appears as if the ocean just wants to swallow you. (Most likely, sometime during this storm you vow to search for a job on land.)

I’ve never felt so small and helpless as I did in really bad weather at sea. As the ship you are on struggles through the weather, you realize that the ocean doesn’t care how many friends you have on Facebook or whether or not you’re the CEO of a company. It wakes you up to the violence of this planet and how our society shields us from the thin line between life and death on earth.

I have often turned to the ocean to deliver perspective on my life and career, using the powerful emotions it elicits to recharge and realign my life priorities. In August of this year I learned that I can gain perspective from my life onshore.

I live in an annexed town within Houston, Texas, called Kingwood. We are no strangers to bad weather, but in August of this year we had an unprecedented weather system: Hurricane Harvey. Over the course of 5 days Harvey dumped 64″ (1.63 m) of rain in our city. Typically, Houston can expect about 50 inches (1.27 m) of rain per year. The storm qualified as a 500-year event, one that we will not forget anytime soon.

Hurricane Harvey destroyed 60% of the businesses and 50% of the homes in my town. My neighbor across the road flooded; my dentist, doctor, grocery store—all gone. I was one of the incredibly lucky ones. Our house didn’t flood and we got power back within ten days of the storm.

As I was lucky and dry I was able to help my neighbors evacuate. All day and all night we rescued folks who needed to get dry and safe. It was one of the most emotionally taxing experiences of my life.

On the fourth day of the storm the floodwater started coming up my driveway.

The video below is still tough for me to watch. My wife recorded it for her family, and you can hear the uncertainty, surprise, and pain in her voice.



We never did go to that Red Cross shelter. It flooded—twice. About 3 hours after that video was made the water stopped rising and slowly receded.

Once the water receded it left a mess. Those of us who banded together to rescue our neighbors in the high water traded kayaks for hammers, ripping out debris from flooded homes so that people could rebuild again. We guarded our flooded neighborhood at night so that our homes weren’t looted.

We got through it.

So why mention all of this? I wrote earlier about the violence and beauty of the ocean and how it elicits emotion from people. I guess the same can be said of any “natural” disaster. This storm helped many—including me—align my priorities. It exposed just how fragile life really is.

So, what did this perspective deliver?

1)  I need to spend more time with my family (most everyone in the ocean technology community probably does)
2)  The unmanned community can help people and governments prepare for and recover from these disasters

As we have already established: I am an ocean and robotics nerd. So, during the storm I was thinking about how we (Liquid Robotics) could help. I wasn’t the only one. Our team deployed a Wave Glider with Texas A&M University to help study how this storm is going to affect the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another great example of robots helping with the recovery efforts? After the storm, aerial drones were immediately deployed by the USCG and FEMA in the hardest hit parts of Texas, conducting daily drone flights assessing damage to infrastructure and trying to locate stranded people on rooftops. What a great use of unmanned technology!

The Wave Glider isn’t a lifesaving robot during a flood event. It can’t float down a flooded road and rescue people, but it can help scientists study the conditions that create extreme events, and the conditions during extreme events, so that we can improve our understanding of the Earth’s shifting climate. By understanding the conditions that create these storms and the intensity of the storms at sea, we can provide the governments of the world with information that can be used to design better infrastructure or response efforts.

Collecting data in the middle of the ocean is a real challenge. Long-duration unmanned vehicles like the Wave Glider offer the only practical way to get the spatial and temporal scientific datasets required for better analysis and prediction of extreme weather.

Since Harvey, the U.S. has experienced two more major hurricanes. Both have caused widespread damage to property and have ended lives. Throughout these storms we have seen a familiar story—overextended government resources and citizens mobilizing to save each other. It isn’t practical to assume that the governments of the world can solve complex incident response issues with manpower alone.

This is a prime example of why we need robots in our lives. Let our first responders save more people with robots, and enable our scientists to study these extreme phenomena. By doing this we can better understand the timing and intensity of extreme events and respond to them more efficiently.

Let’s find out more about our planet and try to keep more people safe—the two go hand in hand.