Disaster Response Capabilities Improve with Technology

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WASHINGTON — The last decade has seen an explosion in the utilization of new technologies and data sources, many of them space based, for disaster response and relief efforts, but more must be done to turn data into usable information and get it to those on the front lines, a panel of experts agreed.

First responders and relief workers around the world now benefit from new capabilities enabled by the Internet, GPS, communications satellites, cellular networks and faster computer processing. There are more Earth observing satellites on orbit collecting more data than ever before. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have only recently begun to be used for disaster response and are quickly becoming a favored option for the persistent, targeted surveillance they provide. Disaster response and relief efforts are only starting to scratch the surface of what crowd-sourced information — information from social networking services — can offer.

As government and industry officials look to the future, they believe response efforts can be improved with better sensors on more platforms. But reams of data are of little use without widely available commercial software to exploit them and better ways to push the information out to end users, according to the experts, who convened here July 8 for a workshop hosted by the National Academies to discuss a vision for disaster response in 2020.

New space-based sensors are providing improved capabilities to disaster response workers. DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 remote sensing satellite, launched in 2009, images the Earth in eight spectral bands. The spectral data can be used to discern details that were previously not available, said Brett Thomassie, DigitalGlobe’s director of civil government programs.

For example, WorldView-2’s near-infrared, yellow and blue imagery bands are helping authorities dealing with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to track the spread of the oil in the water, Thomassie said. In 2020, space-based spectroscopy will be an even more effective tool for disaster response, he said.

Some panelists said current space-based systems still fall short of what is needed.

Roger Clark, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the single most desired tool for oil-spill monitoring is a wide-swath hyperspectral imager in space. Hyperspectral imagers break light into hundreds of bands, revealing information that escapes detection by more conventional optical sensors. If this kind of capability were available today, scientists would be able map the BP oil spill in three dimensions, instead of only being able to see oil that is floating on the surface, Clark said.

A NASA plane equipped with a hyperspectral sensor is being used in the oil-spill response effort, but it is only able to cover 5.5 kilometer-wide swaths and is expensive to operate, Clark said. Other panelists agreed that having wide-swath hyperspectral data would be helpful, but noted the software to effectively exploit that kind of data has a long way to go in terms of development.

Other panelists said UAVs have already replaced satellites as the preferred platform for some disaster response missions and that their importance will only continue to grow. Unmanned aircraft have come a long way in just a few years, driven by the high demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data for U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Forest Service has been using UAVs to fight wildfires in the western United States for the past five years, said Vince Ambrosia, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Infrared UAV sensor data coupled with simplified, commercially available software have enabled firefighters to quickly find and track fast-moving wildfires, as well as determine which areas have already been burned, he said. UAVs are more useful than satellites for fighting wildfires because of how quickly they can be deployed to monitor specific areas for long periods of time, Ambrosia said.

The biggest problem for disaster response efforts today is turning raw data into actionable information and getting it to of those who need it, Ambrosia said. It is not so much a technical problem as it is related to the chasm between the remote sensing and user communities. It can only be solved by improving collaboration to enable responders to better understand what tools are available and how they can be used, he said.

The U.S. government is monitoring the BP oil spill using many types of platforms, including satellites, aircraft, boats and submersibles. An unmanned Navy blimp is being deployed to monitor the coastline, and there are plans to deploy Predator UAVs to the area as well, said Bill Lehr of the National Ocean Service. UAVs were not used in the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Lehr noted.

Over the next decade, disaster response will benefit from improvements in sensor size, weight and quality, said Don McKeown, a researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Imaging Algorithms and Systems. Most remote sensing capabilities are procured at the federal level, but state and local governments could also benefit from investing in the technology and in people who know how to use it, he said. In the future, remote sensing assets will be tasked more dynamically, and the data will be enhanced with crowd sourced information, he said.