10 Cutting-Edge Disaster Relief Technologies

From artificial intelligence, to remote car upgrades and rescue robots, here's a look at some of the latest innovations in relief efforts for hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
  • The past month has seen an unheard of prevalence of destructive natural disasters, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, a two earthquakes in Mexico, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and Florida.

    While experts will continue to theorize and debate the causes for these natural disasters the one certainty is that if these sorts of events are going to become more commonplace and destructive the need for technologies to provide prediction, safety, and relief in these disasters will only increase.

    We've already seen some novel technologies applied to recent disasters and other promising relief technologies are entering the research phase. On the following pages, we've rounded up some of the most promising technologies worth watching. Click through for a look at some of the latest innovations in relief efforts for hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

  • AI for Earthquake Response

    While artificial intelligence (AI) is still learning how to best predict earthquakes, it can also be applied in the aftermath of a major earthquake to assist with relief and response efforts. Palo Alta, Calif.-based One Concern has developed an algorithm capable of identifying the areas most damaged and in need of aid following an earthquake. The company's algorithm has been taught how earthquakes damage buildings and structures and can be loaded with data in a given area such as the age of buildings and the materials used to construct them. Following an earthquake all of this information can be combined with seismic data, allowing the algorithm to create a heat map that predicts the most damaged areas. As of 2015 One Concern's algorithm has been undergoing beta testing in various areas including San Mateo, Calif.

    (Image source: Angelo Giordano)

  • AI for Tsunami Early Warnings

    Resulting from an earthquake in March 2011, a nearly 50-foot tsunami hit the shores of Fukushima, Japan, leading to a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Investigators later found that the disaster, the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, could have been prevented with better safety precautions and procedures.

    The Fukushima incident is an extreme example, but it shows the devastating effects tsunamis can have. Researchers have been actively working to find ways to improve tsunami warning systems using artificial intelligence. Utilizing fuzzy logic, which analyzes data by the degree to which it is true, as opposed to a boolean true-false, researchers have been able to pool expert data as well as sensor data from tsunami warning systems to create algorithms that are able to predict the likelihood and severity of a tsunami.

    A 2010 paper published by IEEE demonstrated that it is possible that it is possible to design an autonomous early warning system for tsunamis that can be deployed in remote areas without the need for human supervision. A 2014 paper published in the International Journal of Research in Engineering and Technology further expanded upon this methodology, showing that increasing the number of rulesets and parameters can lead to increased accuracy.

    (Image source: WikiImages / Pixabay)

  • Concrete Canvas Shelters

    Following disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake we've seen a widespread need for durable and temporary shelter that can be deployed quickly for relief efforts. A UK-based company, Concrete Canvas, has developed a rapid-setting concrete-impregnated fabric, called Concrete Cloth, that hardens when exposed to air and water (even sea water). One of the company's flagship products is the Concrete Canvas Shelter, inflatable, concrete shelters that feature Concrete Cloth prefabricated onto inflatable plastic, with steel security doors.

    According to the company, two untrained individuals can deploy a shelter in less than an hour in a four-step process and it is fully ready for use in 24 hours. The shelter is water-proof, fire-resistant, can provide a sterile environment, and are also modular and can be docked together depending on need.

    (Image source: Concrete Canvas)  

  • Drones for Disaster Response

    Mentioning drones and UAVs can conjure up some negative imagery. However the FAA recently released a statement praising the use of drones in relief efforts post Hurricane Irma. Various groups and organizations including the Air National Guard, Florida Power and Light, and private companies like Airbus have beeb deploying drones to assess damaged areas, assist with power restoration, and for search and rescue efforts. With low fuel supplies available and airports closed or tied up with emergency relief efforts, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement that drones were critical to maintaining stability in Florida's emergency systems. “Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” Heurta said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”

    Drones were used to similar effect in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, even assisting insurance companies with disaster assessments. The American Red Cross has begun experimenting with drones for damage assessment in disaster areas as well. There are also groups such as the UAViators, that advocate for and work to develop best practices for deploying drones for humanitarian purposes.

    (Image source: Pexels / Pixabay)  

  • Machine Learning to Predict Earthquakes

    Scientists have used a variety of methods to predict earthquakes in the past but none have yielded the consistency and accuracy the public would really need out of an earthquake forecast system. But now researchers believe sophisticated machine learning algorithms could be the solution to reliable earthquake prediction. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been feeding massive sets of seismic data into a machine learning algorithm, hoping to teach it to find patterns that will allow it to predict earthquakes.

    In February, a team from Cornell University published the results of a study in which they used machine learning to predict laboratory-simulated earthquakes. By looking at acoustic and seismic activity that may be precursors to an earthquake the researchers were able to design an algorithm that could detect earthquakes in a lab-made fault line that consisted of three blocks with a rocky material sandwiched between them.

    “We show that by listening to the acoustic signal emitted by a laboratory fault, machine learning can predict the time remaining before it fails with great accuracy,” the researchers wrote. “These predictions are based solely on the instantaneous physical characteristics of the acoustical signal, and do not make use of its history.” They also discovered that the algorithm identified a signal emitted from the fault zone that was thought to only be low-amplitude noise and typically dismissed by seismologists, but actually improves accuracy of its predictions.

    While machine learning has not been applied in any real-world earthquake prediction scenarios yet, the lab results do show promise that it could someday be scaled to do so.

    (Image source: Arvix)  

  • Remote Vehicle Upgrades 

    Gas station could be run dry or become completely unusable in the wake of a natural disaster. Electric and connected vehicles could play a more important role than previously thought in helping relief efforts and assisting those looking to evacuate. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, Tesla owners in Southeastern American discovered that their cars had a longer range per charge than usual. That's because after hearing concerns over the distance between charging stations from customers looking to evacuate the Florida area, the company used its network to temporarily give all of the area's Model S and X 60D vehicles a battery boost.

    The battery upgrade is a feature available when you purchase your Tesla. You can opt for a long-range upgrade at the dealership, but of course not everyone goes for it – meaning their vehicle is merely locked by software from accessing the longer range. The remote battery boost gave customers a 30-40 mile increase in vehicle range.

    (Image source: Tesla Motors)  

  • Rescue Robots

    From 2012 to 2015, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held an annual competition aimed at creating humanoid robots capable of performing disaster relief and rescue tasks. The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) featured robots created by teams from all over the world competing in a series of obstacle course challenges related to disaster response. Tasks included avoiding obstacles, climbing stairs, tripping circuit breakers, turning valves, and even driving a vehicle. Robots in the competition were controlled via a combination of remote and algorithmic control.

    Though DRC is no longer held various international entities such as Germany's Robocup Rescue Robot League are holding similar competitions. "This is the end of the DARPA Robotics Challenge but only the beginning of a future in which robots can work alongside people to reduce the toll of disasters," DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar, said in a statement from the organization following the final competition.

    (Image: a robot designed by Team Tartan navigates some debris obstacles. Source: DARPA)

  • Satellites That See Inside Hurricanes

    When Hurricane Maria hit San Juan, Puerto Rico much of the land-based radar used to provide information about the hurricane as it happens were destroyed. However forecasters were able to turn to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for assistance.

    The NOAA's newest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES), the GOES-16, which was launched in November 2016, uses infrared imaging and is capable of scanning a hurricane as often as every 30 seconds, allowing forecasters a view inside the storm itself to capture detailed data on its intensity, position, and movement – allowing them to track Maria in real time. According to the NOAA, GOES-16 has four times the resolution and a five-times faster refresh rate than previous models, allowing for an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy.

    The GOES-16 is also equipped with a “geostationary lightning mapper” that allows forecasters to view lighting in the storm in real time as well. Beyond hurricanes, the satellite imagery can also be applied to other disasters such as forest fires.

    (Image: GOES-16 geocolor image of Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico as it made landfall on September 20, 2017. Source: CIRA / NOAA) 

  • Solar Phone Chargers

    Sometimes even the smallest gestures can make a huge distance. Chicago-based LuminAID began as a project by two architecture graduate students to design a product to assist in relief efforts following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They opted for something simple – providing light. Their product, the PackLite, an inflatable, solar-powered LED lantern, transformed into a successful Kickstarter campaign and later attracted investor interest on TV show Shark Tank.

    The latest version of the PackLite, the PackLite Nova measures 4.75 x 4.75 x 4.75 inches, packs down to less than one inch in depth, and can run up to 24 hours and provide up to 75 lumens of light. It's rechargeable via micro USB or through built in solar panels and can be fully charged in 10 hours of sunlight.

    LumiAID's latest offering the PackLite Max is a combination 150-lumen lantern and phone charger that the company says is also fully water-proof. According to company specs, the PackLite Max can fully charge a cellphone in the same amount of time it would take to charge using a wall outlet.

    With the help of partner organizations, LuminAID is currently distributing its solar phone chargers and lanterns to disaster relief efforts in Texas, Florida, and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean. The company currently offers a Give a Light, Get a Light program in which a PackLite is donated to relief efforts for every one purchased.

    (Image source: LuminAID)

  • Vibrating Earthquake Barrier

    Engineers are always looking for ways to make buildings, structures, and even entire cities safer and more resistant to earthquakes. One of the latest, novel approaches comes from researchers at the UK's University of Brighton. The researchers have designed a vibrating earthquake barrier (ViBa) that is a structure built into the ground, detached from surrounding buildings, that absorbs the energy of the ground motion from earthquakes.

    The idea (shown in the schematic above) is that as the earthquake creates waves through the ground, the ViBa will dissipate these waves, reducing their intensity before they can hit and damage other structures.

    In a 2015 study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, the Brighton University team tested a miniature prototype of the ViBa and found it could reduce “maximum structural acceleration” by up to 87 percent and cut energy arising from ground motion by 40 to 80 percent. The ViBa is still in the research phase and there has been no word of it being deployed for real-world testing.

    (Image source: Proceedings of the Royal Society A / P. Cacciola, A. Tombari)

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Chris Wiltz is a senior editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including VR/AR, AI, and robotics.

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