Researchers from Rochester Institute of Technology were the rookies at the virtual conference table. After the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey gathered the key players for daily briefings-representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and RIT.
Everyone was there for the same reason: Haiti. Reuters later reported that an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Haitian civil servants had perished in the magnitude 7 earthquake. The destruction extended to Haiti's air traffic control and hampered the international response.
The U.S. Air Force coordinated flight plans a day in advance for U.S. organizations collecting aerial images or providing airlift for ground-based relief. RIT spent seven days flying over Haiti, capturing multispectral images and light-detection and ranging (LIDAR) structural data for the World Bank. The sole university on the teleconference calls was in good company, alongside the military, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Google, and various non-governmental agencies.
"We would talk directly to U.S. Air Force Southern Command to coordinate the specifics of our flight, that we were going to be over a certain area, at a certain altitude and at a certain time frame," says Don McKeown, distinguished researcher in RIT's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.
How did a group of academics from RIT, a private research university more than 1,700 miles from Haiti, find itself operating alongside the U.S. military and national relief organizations in the rescue and relief effort?
The answer is tucked within the acronym "IPLER." RIT and the University at Buffalo formed the Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response in July 2009 with a major three-year grant from the National Science Foundation Partnership for Innovation Program. The technology incubator had a tall order: to improve disaster mitigation planning, to research methods for real-time information in response and recovery efforts, and to stimulate economic development. The researchers' successful mission to Haiti proved that IPLER could do all those things.
"Shortly after the inception of the project, IPLER played a remarkable role in the response to the Haiti earthquake that has resulted in the collection of significant data to share with many international organizations," says Sara Nerlove, program director, NSF Partnerships for Innovation Program. "IPLER is using the data to enable the crafting of a valuable detection tool. We are proud to welcome IPLER as one of the newest participants in NSF's disaster preparedness portfolio."
The incubator is built upon a philosophy of applied remote sensing and partnerships between academic researchers, industry members, and emergency responders working in disaster management.
The whole focus is to stimulate economic development by moving research out of academia into industry,"McKeown says. "the algorithms and information tools that we develop here would be spun off to startup companies or existing commercial partners to use."
Information products are not just pictures; they are detailed maps, with every pixel of information translating to the location of a fire hydrant or the level of damage and location of buildings, for instance, and assigned a corresponding latitude and longitude.
Using the processed data from Haiti, David Messinger, associate research professor and director of the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory in the Center for Imaging Science, and Bill Basener, associate professor of mathematics, developed a simple algorithm for finding groups of displaced people sheltering under bright blue tarps. Their work demonstrated how the data could be mined to find specific targets.
"The camera system takes an image," says Messinger. "At the same time it takes that image, there's another system that records exactly where the plane is and exactly where the camera is pointed. You have to try to take the images and the information where you are and stitch them together to create a big mosaic."
A unique aspect of IPLER is the range of expertise it can draw on as part of the enhanced Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory. The cast of characters includes physicists, systems engineers, algorithm developers, spectroscopists, computer scientists, and LIDAR experts. This dream team of researchers creates an end-to-end chain of data acquisition, processing, and dissemination that makes it unique among the remote-sensing community.
"It's a one-stop shop," says Jan van Aardt, associate professor in the Center for Imaging Science. "The way I think about IPLER is that it's a continuum between the systems that collect the data on which algorithms are applied to arrive at an information product."
The researchers are the facilitators or liaisons for technology transfer and, in some ways, matchmakers between the end user and the provider whose product or service satisfies a need. If the solution isn't readily available, they develop and customize technology to achieve specific results.
"What I think is missing in remote sensing is going to the end users and asking what problem they would like solved," van Aardt says. "People often focus on the different facets-the systems, the algorithms, the information products. They don't talk to each other. And they don't know what's possible, what's needed."
IPLER bridges the gap and facilitates communication between a network of people involved in different aspects of remote sensing and emergency response. !e growing list of IPLER's industry partners includes ImageCat Inc., Kucera International, Pictometry International Corp., Digital Globe Inc., Optec International (formerly Geospatial Systems), and Wacom Technology Corp.
End users of information products who have joined the IPLER network consist of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, New York State of Office of Homeland Security, and Monroe County Office of Emergency Management.
When he heard about the earthquake, McKeown sent an e-mail to Ron Eguchi, CEO of ImageCat Inc., in California, wondering if RIT's WASP multispectral imaging sensor would be useful in assessing the damage. Eguchi contacted the World Bank, which liked the idea so much it funded ImageCat, which contracted RIT, which contracted Kucera International, whose Piper Navajo aircraft was already configured to accept RIT's multispectral camera system.
"The World Bank needed a full assessment of damage, not just selected areas or 'snapshots,'" Eguchi says. "The results of our analysis would be used to establish a preliminary damage total and this information would help to establish the rebuilding needs of Haiti."
The flight crew, comprised of RIT engineer Jason Faulring-operating RIT's camera system-and two pilots from Kucera-one flying, one working a LIDAR topographical sensing system-covered 250 square miles during its seven-day mission for the World Bank, collecting 100 to 200 gigabytes of data daily.
RIT generated an estimated 1.5 terabytes of data of the damage in Port-au-Prince, Leogane, and Jacmel. External organizations have downloaded more than 40 terabytes of data from RIT's server.
"We had the most diverse data set of anyone there, including the military." McKeown says. "We had the LIDAR and the high-res imagery collected from the same platform. From all the people there, we're the only ones who had that combination of LIDAR, high-resolution color imagery, and infrared all together."
Retrieving the data, processing and disseminating it took a Herculean effort. Faculty, staff, and students worked through the night to pull the data back to RIT and to stitch the raw images into information maps.
In order to ship data back to the U.S. each day, the New York State Education and Research NETwork (NYSERNet) Internet2 consortium, facilitated by RIT Research Computing, temporarily increased RIT's bandwidth, creating a data pipeline from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez to RIT. Using experimental networking tools, the two universities transferred 50 megabytes a second over thousands of miles.
"You can think of it as a baseball analogy," says Bob Krzaczek, software architect in the Center for Imaging Science. "Brent Bartlett, an RIT postdoctoral researcher in Puerto Rico, was pitching and we were catching. We had to do much of it in sync. We were simultaneously catching from the pitcher in Puerto Rico and then throwing the ball to everyone on the field who needed that data."
RIT's experience in Haiti increased the profile of IPLER and what it can do. It opened a door to the tightly knit disaster relief community and established relationships with entities the university had never dealt with before the crisis.
"IPLER gives us an opportunity-Haiti was the example of that-to really see the importance of the work we are doing. The research and the direct work with industry translate to a measurable impact on society," says Stefi Baum, director of the Center for Imaging Science. "And we keep finding new opportunities to grow things out of this work and these partnerships."
A grant van Aardt won from Google is a direct spinoff of the Haiti response. U.S. Air Force Capt. Rick Labiak, a graduate student in the Center for Imaging Science working on the project, is exploring the use of LIDAR to capture structural and topographical information for a rapid turnaround tool, giving incident commanders quick and accurate building-damage assessment of an area.
An NSF-sponsored integrated master's degree program at RIT in decision support technologies grew out of IPLER and trains students in policy, economics, and remote sensing aspects of disaster management. The Monroe County Office of Emergency Management, Digital Globe, ImageCat, and Pictometry are IPLER partners participating in the program.
Research in the laboratory is now moving toward automated generation of 3D information products that extract a 3D virtual world from two-dimensional pictures and LIDAR data. RIT is creating an "innovation ecosystem" in which the university drives innovation and pushes it into the marketplace, says McKeown.