Managing Disasters with High-tech Imaging Could Save Lives

RIT, University at Buffalo seek to improve emergency response with real-time information




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The debacle of Hurricane Katrina proved that scrambling for information during a disaster is no way to run an emergency response effort. Quick access to information is critical to saving life and property in the precarious hours following a disaster.

Improving disaster response is one of the goals of the Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response, a partnership between Rochester Institute of Technology and the University at Buffalo. The collaboration will foster research to improve disaster mitigation planning, real-time response and recovery efforts, and to create potential business opportunities for industry.

The incubator, funded with $600,000 from the National Science Foundation, will focus on technology, policy and business-development and bring together university researchers, private sector service and product providers, and emergency response decision makers.

“The economic benefit of this initiative will be seen in the growth of disaster-related information products and workers who know how to use them,” says Donald Boyd, RIT vice president of research and lead scientist on the project.

RIT and UB are leading centers in remote sensing, or the use of airborne sensors or satellite imagery to capture data over large areas. The laboratory team has extensive experience in fire and flood research, and previous collaborations with local emergency response personnel. Matching the needs of emergency responders with information products that combine remote sensing imagery with geographical information systems is central to the lab’s mission. Geospatial analysis technology can be used to show crisis managers what is happening during a disaster, where events are occurring and how they might develop over time.

Information products developed at the RIT-UB lab will identify priority areas in disaster events through the use of digital elevation models of ground surfaces for flood-plain mapping using radar or light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, sensors, and multi-spectral infrared detection of fire and floods through long- and short-wave infrared sensing.

“By working with agencies, companies and end-users, IPLER allows us to leverage the broad expertise in disaster mitigation and response that is exemplified by the UB 2020 extreme events strategic strengthUB 2020 Strategic Strength on Extreme Events,” says Chris Renschler, associate professor in the UB Department of Geography, leader of the UB team and research scientist of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis and at UB’s MCEER, (formerly known as the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research). “An important goal of this project is ensuring that the new technologies that we develop in our research labs at RIT and UB will best meet the needs of the people in agencies and industries who are charged with protecting our communities during disasters and attempting to improve their resilience in the face of natural and man-made hazards.”

Researchers at the Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response will hold a series of workshops starting in the fall to bring together disaster management experts and technology and service providers. Industry partners specializing in satellite and airborne sensors and analysis software tools are Kucera International, ImageCat Inc., DigitalGlobe and Pictometry International. These team members will share data sets for research and development and existing software tools. In turn, the companies will benefit from products developed at the lab and contacts with potential clients.

Public sector partners will provide consultation for information product needs and requirements, and feedback on research. The U.S. Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center, New York State Office of Homeland Security, New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation and Monroe County Office of Emergency Management will provide feedback.

“The idea is that we go directly to end-users and ask them what they need in terms of disaster management products, and then go back to the sensing system and do the research and develop the algorithms that lead to the identified products,” says Jan van Aardt, RIT co-principal investigator. “It’s all about open flow of communication from end-user up to the level where we integrate systems and algorithms for operational purposes. ”

The first set of information products will focus on flood and wild land fire mapping using existing data collected by researchers at RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and UB’s MCEER. Next year, the team will define another set of disasters based on user need.

“We could potentially go from fires to gas leak detection, environmental disasters, terrorist attacks,” says Don McKeown, RIT research scientist and Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response team member. “A lot of the tools you have in your remote-sensing tool box are the same; it doesn’t matter what the application is.”

“Research won’t gather dust on a shelf,” adds van Aardt. “Research outputs will actually be used in operational environments. I think that’s really exciting.”

Student research is another important aspect of the laboratory. The NSF grant will support an undergraduate in imaging science and in computer science, as well as a doctoral candidate. Working under Tony Vodacek, RIT co-principal investigator on the lab team, is Bin Chen, a doctoral candidate at RIT’s Center for Imaging Science, who will provide the research backbone for product development.

“We’re educating students who know something about the emergency response community,” notes Vodacek. “Their potential jobs would be working for companies like the ones we’re partnering with. In essence, they’d get scientists with the expertise so that they can do their own research.”

The Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response team is led by RIT’s Don Boyd. Supporting members of the laboratory include remote sensing researchers at RIT: Jan van Aardt, Don McKeown and Tony Vodacek, and Jamie Winebrake, chair of science, technology and society/public policy; and geospatial analysis experts at UB: Chris Renschler and Ronald Eguchi, an MCEER affiliate from ImageCat Inc. of Long Beach, Calif.

Rochester Institute of Technology is internationally recognized for academic leadership in computing, engineering, imaging technology, and fine and applied arts, in addition to unparalleled support services for students with hearing loss. Nearly 16,450 full- and part-time students are enrolled in more than 200 career-oriented and professional programs at RIT, and its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For two decades, U.S. News & World Report has ranked RIT among the nation’s leading comprehensive universities. RIT is featured in The Princeton Review’s 2009 edition of The Best 368 Colleges and in Barron’s Best Buys in Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education recognizes RIT as a “Great College to Work For.”

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB’s more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities. MCEER is UB’s national center of excellence in advanced technology applications dedicated to reducing losses from earthquake and other hazards nationwide.