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Self-piloting copter from CMU aids in mapping Somerset crash site

Thursday, September 13, 2001

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

A self-piloting helicopter developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute was sent to Somerset County yesterday afternoon to aid the FBI in its investigation of Tuesday's crash of United Airlines Flight 93.

The 14-foot-long helicopter is outfitted with a laser rangefinder that can quickly produce a highly detailed, three-dimensional map of the impact crater and the surrounding spread of debris. Chuck Thorpe, director of the Robotics Institute, said the aerial map can include objects as small as one or two inches in diameter.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher said the FBI hopes the maps will speed the search for evidence that might explain what happened aboard the aircraft.

"This will be a painstakingly long task," Fisher said. Though the impact crater is relatively small, debris is spread over a broad area. The aerial map may help identify key evidence faster than it might be found by physically canvassing the area.

Just how the copter will be used is up to the FBI, Thorpe said. The laser rangefinder can produce color maps of the land contours and vegetation, but it also can be outfitted with polarized filters that can help differentiate among materials.

The helicopter is an automated version of a $30,000 one built by Yamaha and normally used for such mundane tasks as crop dusting. CMU researchers led by Omead Amidi have equipped the helicopter with optical sensors, Global Positioning System units and computer controls that enable it to take off, land and maneuver without human assistance.

Before the arrival of the CMU aircraft, state police already had called in a scientific team from Mercyhurst College in Erie to produce a similar map of the crash site.

A six-member Mercyhurst team arrived at the site Tuesday, where they were using an optical device called an infrared theodolite to pinpoint the location of the scattered remains.

Thorpe said the two types of maps are complementary. While the aerial maps cover a broad swatch and include details as small as one or two inches, the smaller scale maps produced by forensic anthropologists can be accurate down to the millimeter.

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