Fighting natural disasters with technology

Germany and Indonesia have developed an early warning system against tsunamis. Now German scientists are working on a sensor network using flying robots.
by Kurt de Swaaf

It is bound to happen again, sooner or later. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not till the next century – no one knows for sure. But the threat remains. It lurks in the depths of the Indian Ocean, in the Sunda Trench, most of which is only a few hundred nautical miles from the coasts of Southeast Asia. Unimaginable forces are at work there. This is the place where the Indo-Australian tectonic plate is pushing inexorably under its Eurasian counterpart. Kilometre-thick masses of rock are rubbing against each other and sometimes get jammed. When this happens, the consequences are horrific. On 26 December 2004, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake shook the region, after which a monstrous tsunami crushed whole sections of the coastline. Indonesia was hit hardest. Approximately 250,000 people did not survive the disaster.

In future, however, the forces of nature won’t surprise the inhabitants of these regions so easily. They have equipped themselves with state-of-the-art technology. GITEWS, the German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System went into operation in November 2008. It is the impressive result of an international collaboration involving earth scientists, computer specialists and experts in various other disciplines. The initiative came from a working group at the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam. The early warning system was officially handed over to the Indonesian government in March 2011 after a test phase lasting nearly two and a half years. Last October UNESCO appointed Indonesia as one partner responsible for supplying tsunami information on the Indian Ocean, together with Australia and India.

GITEWS consists of a network of sensors and measuring stations that have been installed both in the sea and on land; all are connected to the central warning centre in Jakarta. The heart of the system is called SeisComP 3.0. This new software package has been specially developed by GFZ experts to analyze with lightning speed seismological measurements combined with other relevant data. After all, when the seabed quakes, Indonesia in particular has alarmingly little time to react. Tsunamis can easily reach speeds of around 800 kilometres an hour, explains Daniel Acksel, GFZ’s deputy project coordinator. “They can reach the coast in only 20 to 40 minutes. If you want to warn the population in time, you have to get the message out within five minutes.” Previous warning systems were too slow. Yet not every seismic shock sets a deadly wave in motion. It depends on the type of quake and its direction of motion. Thanks to SeisComP 3.0, the real risk can now be recognized within a few minutes.

GITEWS has already proved its efficiency several times since it started operating. The system has successfully detected 13 different earthquakes with local tsunamis, although most of them were relatively harmless, reports Daniel Acksel. Even so, when the earth’s crust shook near the southern coast of Sumatra on 25 October 2010 and triggered a tsunami, the warning came too late for many people on the offshore islands. About 500 residents were killed by this tsunami. In one village, however, the people managed to escape in time. GITEWS advisors had pre­viously conducted an education campaign there. The inhabitants rushed to higher ground immediately after the quake. “It’s crucial to disseminate the nec­essary knowledge. That is at least as important as the technical warning system,” Daniel Acksel emphasizes.

Yet absolute safety can never be assured. Natural disasters will still befall people in the future and leave their homes in ruins – not only in Southeast Asia. When it does happen, quick and effective emergency help is needed. However, aid workers usually face huge difficulties. The infrastructure is often completely destroyed in the areas affected: collapsed buildings everywhere, sometimes whole cities destroyed beyond recognition. And somewhere people, some of them injured, lie buried amid the chaos. It’s a nightmare.

Rainer Schönbein and his colleagues at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft want to provide relief. It’s a grey autumn day on the outskirts of a small green park in the north of Karlsruhe. The engineer shows us a strange-looking rolling vehicle. It looks like a mini-tank, but its uses are purely peaceful. Inside a container sits one of Schönbein’s assistants, who is driving the device from a control console. The terrain outside can be seen in close-up on the screen. The vehicle takes pictures with its own camera and transmits them to the control system.

The use of remote-controlled robots in disaster operations is not new, explains Rainer Schönbein. However, what he and his team at the Karlsruhe Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) are developing is frankly revolutionary: the “day-after-tomorrow” project SENEKA. The basic idea is to interconnect mobile robots with each other and with an operations centre in such a way that they can operate jointly and optimally coordinated with the emergency services. The advantages would be enormous. The devices would be the first to explore the destroyed area. They can be equipped with a range of different cameras, scanners and sensors. Injured people can be traced using infrared imaging, and highly sensitive microphones can detect knocking signals from people who are trapped or buried. At the same time, gas detectors warn the human helpers of possible hazards. All the data then comes together in the mobile command centre. Specialists quickly process the data to create a digital picture of the situation and then use it to direct the rescue teams in the field.

Flying robots, or octocopters, will play an important role in operations involving SENEKA. These astonishingly intricate devices can scan an area extremely quickly from ​​the air, and explore an area together as a swarm. SENEKA aims to have the capacity to direct 10 to 15 such flying eyes at the same time: “Then you no longer need helicopters or satellites,” says an enthusiastic Florian Segor, engineer at IOSB. Different types of robot would need to be integrated into the teams of machines, depending on the weather conditions and the terrain. “You just have to be flexible,” Rainer Schönbein stresses. Remote-controlled ground vehicles often make little progress between rows of collapsed houses, while light octocopters can be grounded by high winds and heavy rain. So all the devices need a uniform communication channel.

Such coupling systems, however, offer even more potential. “Networking also allows what we call sensor fusion,” explains SENEKA project manager Helge-Björn Kuntze. For example, if a flying robot has traced a person by camera, a ground device can use temperature sensors and a carbon dioxide detector to find out whether he or she is still alive and breathing. After all, in an emergency being able to distinguish the living from the dead can save survivors’ lives, if this means they get help more quickly.

by Kurt de Swaaf

Add comment

Log in to post comments