Zane Thimmesch-Gill (Human Factors) Investigates Human Perceptions of Disaster Relief Robots

Could robots provide relief during natural disasters? How would people respond? Zane Thimmesch-Gill (Human Factors and Ergonomics) was awarded an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship to find out.


Thimmesch-Gill holds a dual MFA in film production and creative writing. He was filming a documentary about Inuit health issues on a Fulbright fellowship when his career took a new turn. “I began wishing that I could reach around the camera and help to fix the problems I was witnessing, rather than just making a story about them,” he said. This led him to Guatemala, where he witnessed the devastating impact of mud slides. “Whole towns were being buried under literal mountains’ worth of mud. People rushing to pull their friends out of the mud were often buried alive in secondary slides.”

He returned to the states and began the PhD track in Human Factors and Ergonomics, an interdisciplinary program exploring how technology can improve human performance and enhance human life. In his first semester in the program, he recognized the potential for disaster robotics to help out in situations like those he’d seen abroad. “Machines are expensive, but we can always build more. The question now is to determine how to design them in ways that support human needs.”

His dissertation research will focus on human ability to perceive and understand robots. The results could be applied to facilitate an effective interaction between disaster victims and rescue robots. “Imagine that a tornado has just ripped your roof off and you’re buried in the rubble of your home. How are you going to feel if a robot shows up? How would you know that it’s there to help and not to cause more destruction?”

He’ll also investigate whether humans respond to robots in virtual reality the same way they do in the real world. If so, robot designers can test iterations in virtual reality for a fraction of the cost. As climate change causes greater weather variance and more frequent severe disasters, this could get the technologies into disaster sites and helping people more quickly. “Robotics and virtual reality show a lot of promise for mitigating pain and loss, and I’m committed to finding ways to ensure that everyone can access the benefits.”


Thimmesch-Gill is a research assistant in the Center for Design in Health, and his advisor is Kathleen Harder (Human Factors). Throughout the course of his research, he will also receive mentorship from Wilma Koutstaal (Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology) and Maria Gini (Computer Science). The Human Factors program includes courses from departments across the university, including public health, psychology, computer science, and kinesiology; with its administration housed in the College of Design. Thimmesch-Gill believes this gives Human Factors a collaborative advantage.

“Developing the skill to simultaneously consider challenges through the lenses of psychology, design, computer science, and kinesiology leads to agility and a commitment to consider multiple perspectives. This soft skill is what can make or break a collaboration, so human factors can contribute a lot to problem solving by being able to approach problems in a multiplicity of ways.”

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