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Technology is critical for Disaster prediction, management and response, including search for survivors, and delivering relief care

Disasters are becoming more commonplace and complex, and the challenges for rescue and humanitarian organizations increase. International reinsurer Munich RE has projected that worldwide losses due to 2017’s string of natural disasters will reach $330 billion, with only $135 billion of those costs insured. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria alone, which left behind $215 billion in damages, made 2017 the costliest hurricane season on record.


2019 Year’s global losses were almost twice the 10-year, inflation-adjusted average of $170 billion, and insured losses were nearly three times the annual average of $49 billion. U.S. disasters made up 50% of all losses versus its usual 32% share. The devastating wildfire season in California drove insured losses to around $8 billion. And at least five severe thunderstorms across the country, accompanied by tornadoes and hail, caused insured losses of more than $1 billion each.


In Asia, heavy monsoon rains that lasted about four weeks longer than usual killed 2,700 people and caused $3.5 billion in total losses. The Terai lowlands in Nepal, home to almost half the Nepalese population, were most severely hit. In Europe, unusually low temperatures in April caused billions of dollars in damage to farmers, shrinking some harvests by 50 percent. The damage was especially costly because crops had already grown robustly in an otherwise warm spring.


In India Bihar floods affected 19 districts of North Bihar causing death of 514 people. Mumbai Flood refers to the flooding that occurred on August 29, 2017 following heavy rain on 29 August 2017 in Mumbai. Transport systems were unavailable through parts of the city as trains and roadways were shut. Power was cut-off from various parts of the city to prevent electrocution. Ockhi was the most intense tropical cyclone in the Arabian Sea since Cyclone Megh in 2015.  More than 245 fatalities were caused by Ockhi, including 218 in India and 27 in Sri Lanka and it left at least 551 people, mainly fishermen, missing.


On 29 September 2017, a stampede broke out at the Elphinstone station in Mumbai, India.  23 people were killed and 39 others were injured in the stampede. A large number of child deaths occurred at the state-run BRD Medical College hospital in Gorakhpur city of Uttar Pradesh, India. As of 2 September 2017, 1,317 children have died at the hospital.


The risk of disasters is accumulating rapidly, with climate change increasing the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and urbanization exposing greater numbers of people to their impacts. Over the last decade, China, the United States, the Philippines, Indonesia and India constitute together the top 5 countries that are most frequently hit by natural disasters. Each year, natural disasters, compounded by climate change and conflict, cause more than $500 billion in losses.


Technology can play very important role in preventing disasters, rapidly respond and deliver relief care to the affected population after an earthquake, search for survivors, provide backup to damaged critical infrastructure including communications e.t.c.Many new tools and techniques are being developed through large research and development efforts that are saving thousands of lives.


Technology has transformed how the rest of the world views and responds to crises. The use of social media, drones, satellite imagery through GIS, real-time disaster modeling, and widespread connectedness means more efficient and necessary information flow. Immediate information on the most damaged areas of a city or locations of where people remain stranded saves lives. Real-time data allows emergency management to develop more targeted response plans, a technological leap from search and rescue strategies decades ago.


After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, NGOs and humanitarian agencies turned to crowd sourcing information to reach survivors: the mapping platform Ushahidi was used to map SMS requests for help. Since then, Google’s Person Finder has been used to help reconnect families after floods in Pakistan, the 2013 Japan earthquake, and more.


But we have to think creatively about adapting and adopting these technologies in emergency situations. Disasters leave little room for trial and error. The consequences are too great.” If we are to be effective in responding to disasters and other public health emergency situations, we need to do a better job figuring out how technology can be integrated into disaster response, write a group of Johns Hopkins’ authors. Technology holds little value in disasters if unavailable when it’s needed most. If we can understand more clearly how people want to use Big Data and ICT in disasters, then we can focus our efforts on ensuring those technologies are resilient and reliable under any circumstances.”


Role of technology in disaster management and Response

Information and the dissemination of information are key. Smart phones, social media, sharing economies and other tools are already helping to redesign emergency preparedness and response operations by: Facilitating community participation, Spreading lifesaving messages and Expediting service delivery even where power, connectivity, infrastructure and local training are lacking or limited.


Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. have been widespread in disseminating information about a stranded person in a collapsed house or a lost pet. Social media allows emergency response crews to immediately connect with survivors and direct their attention accordingly. Beyond information and communications technology (ICT), other technologies  such as robotics, manufacturing, medical and transport technologies are also important.


The emerging technologies of focus ultimately included 3D printers, augmented reality software, biometric scanners, robots, smart cars, smart home sensor networks, unmanned aerial vehicles and wearable devices as well as the increasingly diverse methods to power them and the applications tied to their effective use.”


Wearable devices for providing early warning, supporting search and rescue, and reconnecting families, Unmanned aerial vehicles for temporarily restoring communications networks and delivering critical relief items, such as medicines, post disaster. Smart home sensor networks for sensing and reporting fires in informal settlements/slums. Biometric scanners in ATM-like kiosks for restoring lost documentation to prove identity, access assistance and reconnect families.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

In recent years, several humanitarian organizations and governments have used UAVs in disaster management, most notably for assessing vulnerabilities before an emergency and damage after the disaster.


Both community members and experts involved in the dialogue agreed on their value as quick delivery agents for high-value supplies, such as medicines, and the sky as a temporary supply route in early response activities, as UAVs could traverse terrain that might be impassable otherwise. They also appreciated their potential to supply lighting, power and connectively from the air until more permanent solutions on the ground can be restored post-disaster.


Chinese scientists and engineers are designing drones to help firefighters rescue trapped people, especially in high-rise building fires. Developed by China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the drones can quickly fly into a building via doors or windows, search for trapped people and plan rescue routes.


When a fire occurs in a high-rise building, firefighters often have to walk upstairs and their sight is affected by heavy smoke, making it hard to plan a rescue route. According to Xu Jian, designer at CALT, the drones can be quickly flown into the fire location to access the situation before firefighters arrive. “For a skyscraper with a height of around 500 meters, it takes about half an hour for firefighters to climb the stairs to the top floor, but the drones take only two minutes,” Xu said.


The drones can avoid obstacles, draw a three-dimensional map indicating the distribution of obstacles, and plan a barrier-free rescue route. They are also equipped with cameras and pictures can be transmitted back to the ground in real time, which help firefighters locate trapped people.


The exterior of the drone is made of a composite material commonly used on rockets, allowing it to withstand a high-temperature environment of 200 degrees. China has a huge demand for the drones and they are expected to be put into use by the end of this year, Xu said.



Wearable Devices

Community members and experts all recognized the value of wearable technology transmitting location information, which could be used by first responders to find people and accelerate family reunification after an incident. They also envisioned wearable technologies assisting with medical triage and diagnosis; this use could also help prevent disease transmission if healthcare professionals can access the patient’s information remotely.


Participants noted that both glasses and trackers currently require smartphones and Internet access, which limits their disaster use


New device brings military tech to heart health

Local doctors are making use of military technology to help heart failure patients. The Sensible Medical Vest was developed from technology created in Israel which uses radar to find and help rescue people buried in rubble and debris. In as little as 90-seconds, the device detects how much fluid is in the lungs and if a patient has too much fluid in their lungs that could indicate heart failure.


“It allows us to make medical decisions about whether they need more diuretics which are water pills to help get fluid off or whether we need to adjust other medications to help keep them clinically out of heart failure,” said Dr. Scott Feitell, director of heart failure at Rochester General Hospital. More than 6 million people suffer from heart failure in the U.S. which accounts for about 25% of readmission’s at hospitals.


Augmented Reality Software

Augmented reality software adds a layer of computer-generated data, which cannot be seen or heard with human senses, into reality through smart glasses and other Internet-connected devices.


The experts noted how mobile devices equipped with augmented reality software could be held in the user’s line of sight (similar to taking a picture) and display computer-generated billboards and bubbles on the screen that correspond with people’s homes and businesses, indicating those who are offering food, water, first aid and other services. This, they said, can be particularly helpful if the user is unfamiliar with the area, cannot see around the corner or is surrounded by high-rise buildings. This emerging technology could also help community members locate available resources post disaster and pinpoint people buried by a landslide or earthquake, saving lives and increasing the speed of recovery.


The software would need to be updated regularly and provide near real-time information (generated by users) about fixed and mobile services as they become available and expire.


SSTL: Space Tech Companies Worldwide Compete in International Challenge to Improve Flood Risks

Singapore Space and Technology Limited (SSTL)  announce its collaboration with the World Bank Group for the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Challenge in May 2020. This challenge supports the Southeast Asia Disaster Risk Insurance Facility (SEADRIF), which has developed a regional catastrophe risk pool for flood risks developed by and for Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar. In 2019, the World Bank partnered with Singapore and Japan to support the establishment of SEADRIF, a platform for ASEAN countries to access disaster risk financing solutions and increase financial resilience to climate and disaster risks.


Launched to stimulate and tap into the creativity of companies, start-ups, research groups, or even students, the challenge seeks functioning solutions using satellite imagery to improve real time information about the risk and extent of flooding across ASEAN. Through this challenge, SSTL hopes to foster relationships between countries in Southeast Asia to build a thriving and collaborative regional space ecosystem.


“Remote sensing satellite technology has become a critical tool for real-time disaster management. We launched the HADR Challenge to tap into the ingenuity of space tech companies to find novel and translatable solutions. We want to show how space tech can help humanity, and in the process build bridges between communities,” said Ms Lynette Tan, Chief Executive, Singapore Space and Technology Limited.

Cubic Partners with US Army to Deploy Satellite Communications Technology to Aid Hurricane Recovery Efforts in Florida

Cubic Corporation  announced in No 2018, that its Cubic Mission Solutions business division has deployed its GATR satellite communication (SATCOM) and networking systems as well as personnel to support Florida hurricane disaster recovery efforts. Due to high demand for the Inflatable Satellite Antenna (ISA) capability, the Army granted permission to deploy four of its GATR ISAs to help restore connectivity lost during Hurricane Michael.


Partnering with the United States Army’s Transportable Tactical Command Communications (T2C2) project office, Cubic’s GATR SATCOM and networking systems have been set up in several locations throughout Panama City, Lynn Haven and Youngstown, Florida to provide communications, networking and high-bandwidth connectivity as a no cost service to local municipalities. This partnership enabled the deployment of multiple 1.2-meter and 2.4-meter GATR systems to restore communications for local government and first responder personnel throughout the Florida Panhandle. “The GATR system’s expeditionary nature and ability to withstand extreme conditions, make it an invaluable technology during disaster response missions,” Bradley H. Feldmann, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Cubic Corporation.


The inflatable and ultra-portable GATR system can be transported in two cases weighing less than 100 pounds each and are able to withstand winds up to 75 mph. The GATR system provides superior throughput performance with innovative technology that enables portability, reliability and ease of setup for SATCOM during the most critical military, government and first responder missions. The GATR system is currently fielded by the U.S. Army to support expeditionary communications for warfighters worldwide.


3D printers

The most interesting use cases for 3D printers,  included the production of medical supplies, disaster-resistant structures and building materials; replacement of important items such as heirlooms, cosmetic and functional modifications to their homes; and making spare parts to maintain the other emerging technologies.


In addition to speed and economic impacts, participants noted several other issues that may prevent 3D printer adoption unless resolved in the next generation of products. Today’s machines are difficult to operate outdoors, especially when exposed to water, dust and winds, and they require regular maintenance and significant power. Participants also questioned the waste generated by the printers as well as their potential toxicity. These barriers must be resolved before their benefits can be fully realized by communities in disaster-prone, urban settings.


Biometric Scanners

Biometric scanners are authentication devices using distinctive, measurable human characteristics and traits such as fingerprints, facial contours, DNA, palm prints, iris or retina patterns, and voice patterns, to identify individuals through a verification process. Participants agreed biometric scanners would be useful tools to manage relief distributions and cash grants, find and reconnect separated families, and restore lost documentation. Community members appreciated that biometrics could help them fight false criminal accusations and prove their identity more immediately than DNA testing. That said, community members also noted some drawbacks to the technology, including potential abuses of power, privacy breaches and fraud.



Responding to epidemics also puts healthcare workers at significant risk of infection. Robots, with video screens to display the faces and voices of human healthcare workers, can provide diagnostic support, treatment and monitoring of medical patients. They can also assist nurses and doctors in removing their personal protective equipment, in burying the deceased, and in comforting people who are suffering from stress and trauma. While people are in quarantine, robots may also deliver medicines, basic necessities and video communications from loved ones.


The most common use cases for robots to assist with strengthening urban resilience, according to the dialogue participants, included supporting telepresence, psychosocial counseling, medical treatment, search and rescue, and clean-up assistance. However barriers—ranging from perception and trust to technical abilities—will need to be addressed by developers before the average consumers will embrace them as helpful resources.


Smart Cars

Smart cars are generally understood to be autonomous and semi-autonomous human transportation vehicles, but they can also include routine enhancements that make the vehicles safer and more connected. Smart cars hold interesting potential for strengthening urban resilience, in that they can also operate on sustainable fuel sources leading to positive environmental implications, expedite safe evacuations before and after emergencies, and receive messages and alerts based on risks in its surroundings. Dialogue participants also noted their ability to float in flooding disasters. Participants noted that after a disaster, when the landscape changes dramatically, updated maps would need to be available immediately to effectively utilize smart cars for a response.


Smart Home Sensor Networks

Community members were significantly more excited by the idea of a home or office building with sensors for fire, earthquake, gas leaks and even pollution, as opposed to the more convenience or entertainment-related use cases. They also preferred the use cases that involved disaster-resistant technologies, such as computer-controlled wind and water barriers that would protect a home’s interior from damage.


They also desired the smart homes to automatically take time-sensitive action, such as turning off the gas or bracing the roof for high winds.


Machine learning help decision makers answer questions such as “When?” and “How bad?”—and “How many people are in harm’s way?”

New data anaylysis technologies  can analyze massive amounts of data are very promising tools that can help community leaders and emergency managers make more informed decisions. Machine learning lets computers mimic human learning to analyze large amounts of data from past disasters to generate new insights about current and future similar events. These technologies, can supplement and enhance existing disaster response programs.


Machine-learning technologies can help decision makers more accurately answer urgent questions such as: When will the disaster hit? How destructive will it be? What areas will be hit hardest, and how many people live and work in these areas? What buildings will be most vulnerable? Will there be power outages, and if so, where? What equipment and resources will be needed and for how long? How much will the disaster response effort cost? And so forth.


There’s a wealth of data available on past disasters that machine learning can leverage. In fact, it’s already being used to improve disaster response. For example, some utilities are using machine-learning tools developed in my research group, in collaboration with Steven Quiring of Ohio State University, to predict power outages from hurricanes and other severe weather events, Seth Guikema. The utilities report that machine learning has provided critical information to help them improve decision making.


In another example, a startup has developed a cross-hazard platform using both engineering-based and machine-learning models to provide information to community leaders and emergency managers that enhance both long-term disaster resilience and short-term disaster response. Another nonprofit startup is using data analytics and mapping to connect disaster victims to first responders and volunteer groups.


However, Machine learning cannot and should not replace traditional methods of disaster response. Moreover, machine-learning technologies do have limitations. They can only process and analyze information that has been input into the computer. For example, if data for an extremely large disaster is not part of the data set, machine-learning technologies likely cannot make accurate predictions for a comparable event in the future. Machine-learning predictions come with uncertainty that can be difficult for decision makers to fully understand. Expert human judgement is absolutely critical, given the complexity and magnitude of the situations.



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