First responders and researchers demonstrate technologies at Summer Institute on Flooding

July 31, 2015
| By: Amy Halbert

First responders and researchers braved scorching temperatures this week to demonstrate the latest in life-saving technologies at the Summer Institute on Flooding hosted by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s (TEES) Center for Emergency Informatics (CEI) in conjunction with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX). It is the 8th Summer Institute held at TEEX facilities, and the second one focused on flooding, which is the number-one type of disaster in the world.

The Summer Institute brought together 60 practitioners, academia and industry for concept experimentation with informatics technologies for preventing, responding to and recovering from flooding, and to discuss lessons learned from the recent Texas floods, as well as to evaluate existing and emerging technologies, generate mission protocols and try them out through field experimentation.

Participants included researchers from the TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, and the Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M, along with the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence and Innovation (LSUASC) based at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Discussion topics included how effective crowd sourcing, computer vision, map-based visualization packages, mobile phone apps and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used for real-world search and rescue situations as well as how they could be used for assessing damage to power lines, roads, homes and critical infrastructure.

Summer Institute UasWith parts of Texas experiencing devastating flooding this past spring, the Summer Institute was a timely review of what was used at the floods and a look ahead to new and developing technologies that can help first-responders in emergency situations where quick response time is vital. One session focused on UAVs that were used to assess damage due to devastating flooding earlier this year throughout the state. Wimberley Fire Department, Austin Fire Department, LSUASC and CRASAR flew UAVs in the Wimberley, Texas, area and discussed how they helped responders “see” into areas in which they couldn’t in order to look for survivors. The UAVs also reported back data about the water levels and debris fields.

“The take-home message for researchers was that the emergency response community needs advances in organizing and visualizing data. They are comfortable with social media, smart phones and UAVs, but are drowning in data. That’s where the Center for Emergency Informatics can help,” said Dr. Robin Murphy, the CEI’s director.

While UAVs conducted four exercises in the field (missing person search, power infrastructure assessment, storm surge assessment, and home damage and debris estimates), the data was routed to SituMap, a new mapping software created by Dr. Richard Smith, a professor at A&M-Corpus Christi. SituMap is an easy-to-learn, multi-user, multi-touch software, which acts as a tablet-like digital command center that shows emergency managers maps of crisis areas. SituMap is being commercialized, along with the GeoSuite common operational picture mobile app and the Skywriter visualization app that have also been tested and refined at previous Summer Institutes. 

“SituMap was unveiled at last year’s Summer Institute, and with the feedback we received last, and this year, we are able to validate existing features and walk away with great ideas for future SituMap development.” Smith said. 

Three undergraduate computer science students from the National Science Foundation Computing for Disasters Research Experiences for Undergraduates program won $900 in prizes for their work in creating computer vision apps to detect signs of missing persons in images and to display where UAVs, canine teams and ground searchers have collected data. Other students presented technologies such as an expert system app for allocating wilderness search and rescue teams, advising on how take better photos of home damage and a robot airboat.

Representatives from 12 agencies including Texas Task Force 1, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management, Texas Parks and Wildlife Law Enforcement Division, South East Texas Regional Advisory Council, Texas A&M Forest Service, and the Texas Insurance Commission participated along with 15 universities and five companies.

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