Students Use IoT to Help Disaster Victims

Since its introduction in 2005, we have seen the Internet of Thing (IoT) influence almost every aspect of human life, from transportation and manufacturing to consumer products and farming. But the IoT has major potential in another area: disaster response and relief efforts.

This is especially true as natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and even major blizzards—increasingly threaten cities and cause myriad crisis situations.

“The risk of disasters is rising rapidly, with climate change, extreme-weather events, and urbanization exposing more and more people to their impacts,” said Gijs de Vries, secretary general of the Netherlands Red Cross Society, at a recent Red Cross Red Crescent global summit. “In the last 20 years alone, 1.3 million people have been killed in disasters while economic losses are estimated at up to $3 trillion.”

Showcasing IoT’s potential

In order to show-case IoT’s potential in rescue and relief situations, six university students recently put together all of the pieces of an IoT-centric disaster relief plan and created a system of applications that, in the future, could be useful in saving many lives.

The students developed their idea while taking part in a January hackathon at Boston-based high-tech company PTC.

“They imagined they were back in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and develop a system that would’ve helped coordinate emergency responses,” explains Jordan Cox, director of the global K-12 programs at PTC, and head mentor at the hackathon.

The system developed by the undergrads is composed of four elements: an aerial map of post-hurricane New Orleans broken up into sections, a cellphone app streaming real-time data, a UAV (simulated by a FIRST Lego League robot), and a ThingWorx Mashup that brings remote sensing data into a platform and steams it to a command and control center.

The sectioned map of New Orleans has four regional medical centers, and each sector has a little wooden block that represents trauma cases. At the bottom of the block there’s a color, which indicates the type of trauma case.

“The premise of the student’s system is that not only do you have to rescue the trauma cases, but you have to take them to the right medical center,” Cox explains. “You don’t want to inundate one center with all burn victims and so forth.”

Essentially, this is how the system would work in a real-life disaster situation:

  • A UAV (in the hackathon, a FLL robot) scans the disaster area, maps it, and sends the data regarding trauma cases, as colors, to the cloud.
  • That data goes to the ThingWorx platform where the command center can access it and use that information to create an augmented reality of the area indicating which trauma cases are in which sector.
  • The augmented reality is sent to the cloud and streamed to a tablet or phone where rescue teams can see the field, the trauma cases, and treatment centers.
  • Using that data, rescuers can rescue trauma cases and bring them to the correct facilities.


How can this help?

The damage and crises created by natural disasters is, for the most part, outside of control. These events can either underwhelm cities—like the recent fizzled snow storm in New York which lost the city an estimated $200 million in economic activity—or completely devastate them.

What can be controlled and improved upon in these situations are emergency relief efforts. Many times during these events, emergency responses can be fragmented and without purpose. This was especially true during Hurricane Katrina.

In the aftermath of the storm, there was a general lack of access to information, and when there was intel it was based on communication with first responders and the citizens in the affected communities. This type of data was not only difficult to capture, but often lacked objectivity. The lack of information led to inefficient, slow, and uncoordinated rescue and relief efforts.

Getting the right information in the most useful format to the right people at the right time becomes easier when the IoT is employed. Embedded sensors and monitors throughout cities and rural areas can capture and send data to a command center, which could potentially help coordinate effective and efficient emergency responses.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can also be used to fly over cities to capture aerial data of structure damage or to locate any victims that may be trapped by collapsed buildings. Captured data can also be communicated in real-time to the correct individuals, which could mean minimizing rescue efforts by days or weeks.

Recognizing the IoT’s potential in helping mitigate the effects of a natural disaster will be crucial for cities and emergency response teams in the future. Getting access to the correct information in real-time will allow teams to make accurate decisions in a quicker time frame, and ultimately, could lead to more saved lives.

Photo Hurricane Katrina LA1 by News Muse on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)