DMI Research Assisting Firefighters in Action-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, April 28, 2011

DMI Research Assisting Firefighters in Action

The growing Disaster Management Initiative (DMI) of Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus (CMUSV) features a solutions-oriented approach, matching real problems encountered in disaster response with technology to develop solutions. The challenge of tracking firefighters in buildings, yet to be resolved, for example, has gained attention of DMI partners, including CMUSV researchers, NASA Ames experts, and professional firefighters, to name a few, who are combining expertise to address the issue.

While GPS information, transmitted by satellite, works fine outdoors, it cannot track location of personnel inside of a building. A firefighter who is hurt or needs assistance while inside a burning building may not be able to communicate their exact location to enable assistance. Recent technology advancements have brought the possibility of tracking closer to reality.

SensorFly device

Dr. Pei Zhang, Assistant Research Professor at CMUSV, is leading Ph.D. and undergraduate students in the research and development of a device that employs radio signals to create a virtual map. Their research is being conducted under the umbrella of the SensorFly project, which sends mini-helicopters inside of buildings, such as buildings devastated in an earthquake, to locate survivors. That research led to a need to know the location of the SensorFly devise.

By measuring the flight time of signals to the device and incorporating a compass to create signatures, the team can determine location inside of a building, even overcoming interference from obstacles such as metal and magnetic interference from steel beams and photocopy machines. “We are able to deploy the devices without prior infrastructure or setup,” says Dr. Zhang, “as soon as we enter a building with the device, we are able to follow the path of the person with the signal.”

Students recently ran a successful experiment in a supermarket, full of metal shelves, achieving tracking of indoor location within one meter of accuracy. The team hopes to run future experiments in cooperation with fire departments, so they can account for radio interference from ionized air created in a fire, as well as challenges due to smoke and other factors. The device will not only allow someone from the outside to find a firefighter in a building by following their trail, it also creates a map that will allow firefighters in the building to exit by the same route they entered—a novel advancement that can help save lives.

With the help of NASA-Ames experts, CMUSV researchers hope to take the technology another step further by monitoring physiology. NASA professionals are experts at tracking physiology remotely—they can monitor the heart rate of astronauts circling 220 miles above the earth at 17,500 miles per hour. The team at NASA-Ames is assisting development of a physio-monitor that can be worn by firefighters when they suit up. Such a monitor could alert a firefighter or their supervisor if their blood pressure level rises dangerously high.

Other new technology being developed to help firefighters includes real time video streaming. By placing a mi-fi/wi-fi card enabled webcam on a firefighter’s helmet, everything a firefighter sees and hears can be transmitted to the chief or other personnel outside of the building in real time. Recent technology developments make this scenario both feasible and affordable.

DMI meetings have brought together a cross-section of leaders in disaster management and response, including fire personnel from several fire departments. Participation and collaboration of professional firefighters enables researchers to not only design a realistic solution, it also creates a vital connection that will enable testing of solutions.