Operations to rescue people from a large, collapsed building typically take several days or a week or more. Shortly, it turns from a rescue operation to a body recovery operation. Can we develop technology to speed up the process so that it can be finished in, say, a day, so that more people can be rescued alive?

I have two types of basic proposals along these lines. If you can come up with even more alternatives, please communicate them. The two basic ideas I have are, One, giant, mobile, mechanical structures which could clear the debris quickly, and Two, technology to allow rapid tunneling into the debris pile to rescue trapped people.

As to idea One, I liken it to a child standing over a collapsed model of a building – say, a plaster model. The child is large enough and strong enough to pick up the debris pieces, one by one, and quickly move them to a discard pile. He or she does not take days or weeks to clean up, but, maybe, only hours. I have done an imitation motion of this, moving my right arm and hand from the left side of my body, where an imaginary pile of debris is, to a ways beyond the right side of my body to place the imaginary debris pieces into a discard pile. In the imitation, the distance from the original debris pile to the discard pile is maybe four to five feet. My arm can swing that distance in a second or less. Then, in my mind, I scale this up. Let’s say chunks of slabs of concrete and steel, maybe five to ten feet in diameter, weighing maybe dozens of tons to a hundred tons or more, can be moved just as quickly from the disaster spot to a debris discard spot. Or maybe the motion, one way, takes several seconds or a minute or two. This is much faster than debris can be moved by current equipment.

I propose developing a system which would include the building of large, temporary, steel, towering structures at disaster sites. The towers would have on them devices which would act like cranes, able to pick up sizeable chunks of debris and quickly relocate them to a discard pile, maybe a hundred feet away or so. The debris-removing towers may have to be hundreds of feet high. Heavy pieces of debris could thus be quickly removed from the original debris pile, revealing trapped individuals. Now, each chunk of debris to be moved may first have to be detached from a larger section of debris. Specially equipped and trained crews on, or hovering over, the disaster pile would do this; more on their equipment, later. Having detached each piece, they would then attach it to the end of the crane device, then get out of the way. Then the tower would pick up and move the piece of debris rapidly to the discard pile. Then it would quickly swing or move around to position the “claw” to pick up another piece.

The steel towers would consist of modular pieces which could be moved by train and/or truck to the disaster site. Then they would be assembled next to the collapsed structure. The ground would have to act as a foundation for the temporary tower-structures. Maybe part or all of the foundation would sometimes have to be set in water, such as at a riverside or beach.  Some towers may have to be built as superstructures over and around existing, non-collapsed, adjacent buildings. The design and layout of the tower would be different in different cases. The debris-moving towers would be assembled from modular pieces relatively quickly, then disassembled after use. I have wondered what type of energy would power the moving parts of the towers. I have even thought of explosive propulsion. Maximum care would have to be taken to design these systems to be as quiet and safe as possible.

As to idea Two, I have thought that possibly a better, smaller, cheaper approach might be to find ways to rapidly tunnel through debris piles to get to trapped victims. One of the problems with this approach might be the instability of the debris pile. And, just as idea One requires detachment of chunks of debris from larger pieces of debris, the tunneling approach would require the ability to rapidly make sufficiently sized holes in, say, slabs of concrete.

Both ideas require ways to quickly break, or break through, say, concrete slabs and steel beams. I have thought of demolition technology to do this. Placing explosives on parts of a debris pile would be dangerous. Especially in the case of needing to make a hole in a concrete slab, as in the tunneling approach, new technology may need to be developed to do this in as controlled a way as possible. I have even thought of something like saw-type devices with explosive teeth. The idea is to concentrate a lot of power into a small space. There would be a need to bust apart parts of concrete or steel at precise, targeted spots. This means high power, directed with precision. While it may be potentially dangerous to trapped people to use high-explosive, power concentrating devices in the debris pile, if the alternative is to leave the victims in the pile of rubble for days, maybe the explosive techniques are necessary.

Another consideration is cost. Especially in the case of giant, mobile, debris-clearing towers, the expense might be tremendous. Maybe making such systems would require billions of dollars. But if FEMA, say, could be funded by Congress to the tune of that much money, then these systems might be realizable. Considering the purpose, the federal government might find it worthwhile to fund such systems.

I may or not be considered the “inventor” of this, since I came up with the idea. But I am no engineer. The organization which would be built to bring this to fruition would have to be managed and run by engineers. That is why I am calling on engineers to get involved in this discussion. Perhaps you have different, better ideas. In any case, if you are interested in finding new, workable ways to save more lives, sooner, in collapsed structures, please get involved in the discussion.