Developing New Technologies for Emergency Communications -Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, October 7, 2013

Developing New Technologies for Emergency Communications

Yuki Nishida of the SSN team adjusts an antenna at Quakeville (Photo: Jason Tao)
Yuki Nishida of the SSN team adjusts an antenna at Quakeville (Photo: Jason Tao)

Students and researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus (CMU-SV) attended the City of Palo Alto’s Quakeville Sept. 21 to demonstrate original technologies for emergency response and management. Designed to help local communities better prepare for earthquakes and held during National Preparedness Month, the annual event includes informational booths for the public and drills for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and first responders.

Working with the city’s Office of Emergency Services, CMU-SV deployed two projects for use in the exercises. The Survivable Social Network (SSN) uses a network of small nodes and to re-establish communications in emergency situations. CROSSMobile creates a “next generation” mobile network for cellular calls and text messages using commonly available hardware, open source software and software-defined radio.

"This is an excellent opportunity to showcase some of our novel work,” said Bob Iannucci, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering and Director of the CMU Silicon Valley campus. Working with local agencies also makes it possible to “work to integrate our technologies into emergency systems already in place within many of our California communities,” he added.

The SSN project, developed at the Silicon Valley campus as part of the Disaster Management Initiative, aims to help communities in disaster situations with a Web application and network hardware that can be installed and maintained by regular citizens in their own neighborhoods. Each node provides neighbors with social networking communications on their smartphones, and ultimately neighborhood nodes will allow users to find the status of family members, report damage, provide help to neighbors and to get updates from the city, schools and other organizations.

In the Fall 2013 semester, a team of graduate students from the Information Networking Institute's MSIT program are working on the SSN project with the City of Palo Alto and the San Jose Water Company as part of a practicum requirement for their bicoastal degree program. Team members Rui Hu, Briana Johnson, Xinfeng Le and Yuki Nishida will serve as engineers and project managers to continue development of the hardware and software.

"By completing a practicum as part of their degree programs, the INI's bicoastal students participate in team projects that are not only meaningful but also add value to an organization. In this example, the organization happens to be the City of Palo Alto, which is a wonderful way for students to gain local government experience while also contributing to the community,” said INI Director Dena Haritos Tsamitis.

An earlier student team completed a proof-of-concept for the SSN project in the Fall of 2012, and a team of Software Engineering students worked in Spring 2013 to implement a version running on a single node. The INI students began work in August on the SSN’s web application as well as the “survivable” mesh network of nodes.

Johnson, who grew up in Southern California, said she could see the value of such a network for her own family and friends in the event of an earthquake. “The larger goal is people helping people,” she said. “Not just in a big disaster, but it’s also an effective way to communicate something important to neighbors.”

During Quakeville, she worked with CERT members to evaluate SSN's effectiveness in the exercises, where participants used the web application to provide text updates in addition to radio communication. In the command center, Johnson watched the SSN updates as she listened, “and sometimes we could see the posts even before they came over the radio.”

The real-world deployment was “a big leap from previous demos,” said Nishida. Participants in the drill were limited to using fully developed functions, but the feedback they provided after the event will help the team as they implement new features, like improved GPS communication with mobile devices and automatic location updates.

The second part of the SSN project, the network of access points for sustainable service, was mostly unaffected by the day’s rainy weather. The CROSSMobile team wasn’t quite as lucky, as several team members had to brave the elements to reposition their antenna, with help from Iannucci and Assistant Research Professor Patrick Tague.

With the antenna secured and Iannucci, Lock Thepdusith (MSIT) and Jason Tao (SE) drying off, the rest of the team — Ph.D. students Ervin Teng and Harry Chan-Maestas, Mridula Chappalli Srinivasa (SE) and Derek Kozel (ECE) — went to work in the command center alongside the SSN team to bring the network online. The CROSSMobile cellular network can make calls and send text messages through an open-source network switch, while a central computing server collects data on apps, users, and the network itself and performs machine learning on the data to intelligently move computation around the network. The analysis helps provide an improved user experience, and in an emergency situation, CROSSMobile can provide redundancy for compromised or overloaded commercial networks.

Iannucci serves as a faculty advisor to both student teams; he was at Quakeville to provide hands-on assistance with setup and testing. Both teams had a great day, he said. “We achieved all that we set out to achieve and more — a successful test of SSN with actionable feedback, a successful setup and test of the mesh network, and a successful first ‘real’ test of CROSSMobile.”

“The preparation the students did was pivotal in making our participation and testing very positive, and their responsiveness in dealing with the challenges as they happened was excellent,” he said.