RIT imaging equipment aids response and recovery efforts in Haiti

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The destroyed National Palace, the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, looks surreal in this aerial image taken with a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument. LIDAR uses laser pulses to make precision elevation measurements.

Jason Faulring gave it about a 20 percent shot at 
happening. He had just flown back from imaging 
a controlled fire in Florida when his RIT colleague, Don McKeown, called with an outlandish idea. McKeown wanted to know his thoughts about heading to Haiti with the high-resolution imaging sensor he had just used in Florida and flying over the disaster zone left by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The obstacles were many—RIT would have to get a special license to fly the thermal infrared cameras and precision navigation system out of the country and then get clearance from the Haitian government to fly over its airspace. 

The logistical details slowly fell into place and, on Jan. 21, Faulring ’03 (computer engineering) and two pilots from Kucera International headed to Haiti, where a 7.0 earthquake had leveled much of its capital, Port-au-Prince, and had flattened the outlying town of Léogâne.

Faulring—RIT engineer, pilot and sensor operator—and pilots George Tatalovich and James Bowers spent 75 hours over nine days in their twin engine Piper Navajo collecting images of the devastation and the fault line for the World Bank. They covered 240 square miles during seven flying days, taking 5,000 pictures per day.

Faulring operated the sensor system RIT initially had 
developed for the U.S. Forest Service, combining high-
resolution color with infrared imaging; Bowers operated the LIDAR sensor, the optical analogue to RADAR that uses 
laser pulses to make precision elevation measurements.

“The first time you crest over the mountain and get over Port-au-Prince and see everything down there—the first impression was you don’t see a lot on the ground and then as you get a little closer you start to see the devastation and the people moving around and trying to find shelter wherever they could, and the tent towns—it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Faulring says.

The Piper crew flew at 3,000 feet, knowing that Haiti’s air traffic control had been reduced to a card table and a few Harris radios manned by the U.S. military. 

“They had no RADAR coverage,” Faulring says. “They had flights coming into the airport every five or six minutes. You’d have a C-130 or a Cessna bringing in supplies. It was a lot of craning our necks around trying to make sure there wasn’t any traffic in our way, but we never had a problem.” 

The flight to Haiti was funded by the World Bank in collaboration with ImageCat Inc. The latter is a partner in RIT’s Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, along with Kucera International and the University at Buffalo, which posted the images on its Virtual Disaster Viewer. The images were also sent to servers at Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, the United Nations, U.S. Geological Survey and ERDAS, a software developer of remote sensing applications. RIT’s efforts to provide imagery of the disaster zone in Haiti were made possible by the support of Congressmen Eric Massa, Chris Lee and Dan Maffei, the U.S. Air Force, and personnel at U.S. Southern Command.