Helping Haiti from above

Published Feb. 9, 2010

In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, scientists from Rochester Institute of Technology swept the leveled city with a high-tech imaging system mounted in a small aircraft.

Funded by the World Bank, and in collaboration with ImageCat Inc., scientists meticulously mapped the disaster zone to aid in crisis management and eventual reconstruction of the city. A twin engine Piper Navajo, operated by Kucera International, an Ohio-based aerial mapping company, flew from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, and refueled daily in the Dominican Republic. The plane flew at 3,000 feet over Port-au-Prince and other areas badly hit by the earthquake. The operation began Jan. 21.

RIT is coupling an imaging system it created for the U.S. Forest Service to detect wildfires using high-resolution color imagery and thermal infrared with Kucera’s LIDAR topographical sensing system. LIDAR makes precise measurements with laser pulses and complements the other modalities in 3-D layered image maps. RIT scientist Jason Faulring operated the camera system to survey damages, detect fires, chemical spills and surface contamination on lakes or ponds. George Tatalovich and James Bowers were the pilots flying for Kucera International. Bowers operated the LIDAR sensor operator.

Recovery crews will use the information in the reconstruction of Haiti. RIT is coordinating closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the U.S. Geological Survey and non-governmental organizations that want to make use of this unique data set.

Thermal imaging provides relief and recovery agencies with critical insight not available from standard color photography. “You can tell how much liquid is in a storage tank with a thermal camera,” says Don McKeown, scientist in RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and project manager. “You can make inferences of tanks that are full, tanks that are empty and tanks that are leaking.”

The LIDAR capability detects and measures collapsed buildings and standing structures damaged by the earthquake. At the request of the U.S. Geological Survey, Faulring is using LIDAR to map the fault line to estimate how much the earth moved. This information is critical to refinement of earthquake-risk prediction models.

Following each flight, Faulring transferred data from the equipment on the plane to a hard drive. He sent the data back to his colleagues at RIT using Internet access provided by the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Mayagüez with the help of professor Miguel Velez. NYSERNet, a non-profit Internet service provider, temporarily made available an unrestricted Internet2 pipe for the purpose of transferring files from Puerto Rico to Rochester. Brent Bartlett, imaging science staff researcher at RIT, also provided assistance transferring data collected in Haiti.

“This has been a huge team effort between RIT and a host of collaborators,” says Jan van Aardt, associate professor of imaging science and director of the Laboratory for Imaging Algorithms and Systems at RIT. The laboratory within RIT’s Carlson Center for Imaging Science developed the sensor system and is working closely with RIT’s Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing group to explore applications. “If it had not been for this close-knit collaboration between the two teams, we never would have pulled this off,” van Aardt adds. “Next steps will include collaborative product development to aid the relief effort.”

Scientists and graduate students worked overnight at RIT in the Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response (IPLER), a partnership between RIT and the University of Buffalo, to process the data and make it available to a worldwide audience. The image maps are posted online on UB’s Virtual Disaster Viewer and sent to servers at Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, United Nations, USGS and ERDAS, a software developer of remote sensing applications.

“The National Science Foundation-sponsored IPLER project, which has as a goal increased flow of knowledge needs between disaster responders, technologists and researchers, has been instrumental in igniting this effort,” van Aardt says.

To view images of the damages caused by the earthquake in Haiti, visit