University tests multi-modal solution
A slew of academic institutions is testing a multi-modal communications solution as part of a $50 million federal funding effort by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ResCUE program.
Maria Zemankova, program manager of the NSF’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems, said the focus of the Responding to Crisis and Unexpected Events (ResCUE) program is to foster new information technologies for those field personnel dependent on the real-time delivery of data during emergency situations.
The initiative specifically calls for the development of interoperable communications for first responders and ad hoc networks that would serve as a backup to fiber-optic networks that fail during a catastrophic event. Another goal is to come up with an inexpensive, lightweight technology, Zemankova said.
ResCUE is now in the third year of a five-year project-funding cycle set by the NSF Information Technology and Research Initiative. It includes a cadre of academic and research institutions attempting to develop applicable technologies for the program. These include the University of California — Irvine, the University of California — San Diego, the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland, with additional collaboration from industry, including the IBM Almaden Research Lab, Zemankova said.
At the UC Irvine’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), academics developed the Evac-Pack multi-modal communications system that lets first responders maintain two-way communication with an operations center during emergency evacuations, said Chris Davison, the project’s test bed technology manager.
The Evac-Pack consists of several off-the-shelf components, with a total weight of 25 to 30 lbs. One component is a GPS/Bluetooth-enabled, backpack-transported Pentium computer with an 802.11 router card and USB drives.
It also includes a video camera, a wearable keyboard, a wireless mouse and a family radio service two-way radio. Visual display goggles offer a VGA color monitor display, while the microphone headset offers full-duplex audio. A helmet houses built-in avionics, or aircraft electronics, with a magnetic compass for a 0 to 360 degree heading capability.
“The avionics technology lets [a command center] see what a firefighter is looking at,” Davison said.
Another key component is a multi-gas sensor. It is a clear plastic tube that sucks in air and tests it for hydrocarbon explosives or LEL — lower-explosive limit — gases; it also provides carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and oxygen levels. It feeds the data back to first responders through the headset and goggles, and then sends the data to the emergency operations center.
“The multi-gas sensor is very sensitive,” Davison said. “It can pick up single parts per million.”
The communication system was tested this past June on the UC Irvine campus. One-third of the campus has been equipped with a variety of temperature, acoustic and video sensors, as well as an outdoor 802.11 communications system. In addition, several buildings also were outfitted with limited in-building wireless systems. The Evac-Pack’s ability to transmit data was tested in this space in order for the university to gauge whether the technology is applicable to emergency responders’ needs, according to Davison.
The initial feedback isn’t good. Chris Lombard, a firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department who co-chairs the Interoperable Communications and Information System subgroup of the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization — which is sanctioned by the U.S. Attorney General and founded by the Department of Defense and Department of Justice — said the Evac-Pack appears wholly unsuitable for use by first responders.
“While the concept of mobile and portable computing is pro-active and has potential, the device, as shown, would be too cumbersome and awkward to be of any use,” he said.
According to Lombard, first responders already have to wear a wide assortment of personal, protective equipment (PPE), depending on the situation encountered. The PPE can include heavy protective gear and body armor.
Another issue is ruggedness.
“A wearable computer must be sealed in such a way that it can be decontaminated from biohazards and hazardous materials, or must be cheap enough to be disposable,” Lombard said.
The Evac-Pack is in a beta phase and has an estimated cost of $2500.