As hurricane Sandy bore down on a metropolis unaccustomed to such storms, transport was shut down, citizens were evacuated, and first responders were put on alert, but the storm still caused widespread destruction. Authorities are still scrambling to restore order and services, yet some are still without power or shelter, a problem only exacerbated by the recent nor'easter.
How could advances in technology enable a faster and more efficient recovery? Advances in technology could give first responders better information and equipment, enabling them to reach victims and rebuild damaged infrastructure with a smarter, not harder, approach.
Image credit: @EricStrange
One of the main problems rescue and recovery efforts face in the difficult days immediately after a natural disaster is a lack of information. As communications systems break down or are overwhelmed, getting accurate information on the situation becomes difficult.
Modern technology has allowed us to cram an unprecedented amount of computing power into tiny spaces, and recent inventions are giving first responders accurate information in disaster zones. For example, imagine rescue crews’ questions at the site of a damaged building: Is the structure stable? Are there any fires or other hazards? What is the layout of the building?
This tennis-ball like camera from Bounce Imaging lets rescue workers get a six-camera panoramic view into hard-to-reach areas and even take infrared photos in the dark. Currently a prototype, future versions of the device are planned to include geiger counters and chemical detectors. It’s an excellent way to explore hazardous indoor spaces without risking the lives of first responders.
Knowing the interior of a building before entere is extremely important in rescue procedures, but in some emergency situations, the robotic ball won’t be able to be used. When responders have to go in first, they can keep the lines of communication open with others on the ground with this wearable backpack from MIT. The pack combines a laser rangefinder, inertia sensors and cameras to create instant maps that are transmitted wirelessly to a computer in a different location, enabling the first man in to send back a detailed interior map while searching for survivors. If this were to be connected to a fleet of small flying drones, entire buildings could be mapped safely in a matter of minutes.
Watch a video of the sensor backpack in action below:
In dark or dangerous environments where first responders don’t have a hand to spare, communication can be difficult. This special jacket, developed by students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has an embedded screen on the sleeve that would allow organizers to reach rescuers or facilitate inter-team communication without garbling messages over walkie-talkies. When speed is of the essence, just being able to glance at instructions and information can save valuable time.
Once an area has been explored and mapped with the above technologies, it still might be too risky or unstable to send people or machines in to rebuild. Georgia Tech has recently been awarded a grant from the Office of Naval Research to create a ‘MacGyver Bot,’ a robot that could use wreckage to build makeshift shelters. The robot would also be equipped with cognitive abilities that could be used to pull people from trapped buildings.
The founder of rescue robotics, Dr. Robin Murphy, a Texas A&M Computer Science professor, leads the university's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. Her teams of small robots have been used after 13 disasters to scour the land, sea and air for survivors, delivering information to rescuers and hope to trapped victims. And while robotics have advanced tremendously in the past few years, she hopes that the computing abilities of small robots will reach a breakthrough so they can send back coordinated emergency informatics for rescuers to make decisions quickly. This would mean the difference between the relatively simple caterpillar robots she used at the World Trade Center after 9/11 and ‘companion bots’ that can stay with victims and help them survive until rescue arrives.
Once the rescues are completed, it’s urgent that displaced people are given adequate shelter and destroyed homes are rebuilt as quickly as possible. The KamerMaker is mega 3D printer the size of a shipping container, able to print shelters and houses in 20 hours. The houses are then ready to have plumbing and electrical wiring installed, and a team of these machines could rebuild whole neighborhoods in a matter of days, not just giving people a place to sleep, but also a future home.
Watch an introduction to the KamerMaker below:
Bringing all these technologies together creates a complete ensemble that could make rescues safer and rebuilding quicker. As extreme weather events become more common, whatever the cause, we will find ourselves increasingly leveraging advanced technology to help us recover more quickly and save more lives.