Monitoring Disasters by Use of Instrumented Robotic Aircraft

Real-time synoptic data would help in coordinating and planning responses.

Efforts are under way to develop data- acquisition, data- processing, and data- communication systems for monitoring disasters over large geographic areas by use of uninhabited aerial systems (UAS) — robotic aircraft that are typically piloted by remote control. As integral parts of advanced, comprehensive disaster-management programs, these systems would provide (1) real-time data that would be used to coordinate responses to current disasters and (2) recorded data that would be used to model disasters for the purpose of mitigating the effects of future disasters and planning responses to them.

altThe basic idea is to equip UAS with sensors (e.g., conventional video cameras and/or multispectral imaging instruments) and to fly them over disaster areas, where they could transmit data by radio to command centers. Transmission could occur along direct line-of-sight paths and/or along over-the-horizon paths by relay via spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. The initial focus is on demonstrating systems for monitoring wildfires; other disasters to which these developments are expected to be applicable include floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, leaks of toxic chemicals, and military attacks.

The figure depicts a typical system for monitoring a wildfire. In this case, instruments aboard a UAS would generate calibrated thermal-infrared digital image data of terrain affected by a wildfire. The data would be sent by radio via satellite to a data-archive server and image-processing computers. In the image-processing computers, the data would be rapidly geo-rectified for processing by one or more of a large variety of geographic-information-system (GIS) and/or image-analysis software packages. After processing by this software, the data would be both stored in the archive and distributed through standard Internet connections to a disaster-mitigation center, an investigator, and/or command center at the scene of the fire.

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