UAH to test drones for earthquake first respondents

By University of Alabama in Huntsville | June 19, 2019

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is the only academic institution selected to be a contractor in an experiment designed to improve first responder communications and on-site information during a major disaster.

UAH’s Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center has the contract to evaluate Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) on Aug. 19 through August 23 during the Next Generation First Responder-Birmingham Shaken Fury Operational Experiment.

Commonly referred to as Shaken Fury, the effort is a U.S. Department Of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate operational experiment to evaluate emerging communications technologies in disaster situations.

“I see this as an exercise in the seamless integration of communications for first responders,” said Jerry Hendrix, RSESC director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Programs responsible for UAS research. “Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Brian Hastings helped to initiate this exercise in Birmingham.”

Birmingham is the last of a five-year series of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Shaken Fury experiments. It will evaluate selected DHS-developed and commercial technologies to see how they integrate with existing public safety systems using open standards, and how those integrated capabilities enhance operational communications, increase operational coordination, improve responder safety and augment situational awareness.

Shaken Fury will simulate the after-effects of a large earthquake at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Legion Field. DHS has partnered with public safety agencies in Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham in the experiment.

The experiment brings together private technology industries and first responders to gather information needed to develop the communications systems of the future. The integration demonstration during the experiment will help local emergency responders augment public safety capabilities before Birmingham hosts the World Games in July 2021.

Shaken Fury simulations will include a partial structural collapse and a hazardous material release at Legion Field. In real life, those events would require significant public safety coordination for search and rescue, stadium evacuation, decontamination and mass medical care.

RSESC’s involvement will center on integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into disaster response and recovery operations by using open-source Internet of Things (IoT) software.

“This operational experiment is actually based on a scenario where a 7.2 or 7.3 magnitude New Madrid Fault earthquake sets things off,” said Casey Calamaio, an RSESC research engineer.

“Unmanned aircraft systems are increasingly used in disaster response and recovery because they are easily deployed, operate in a range of environments and collect data from a perspective that is extremely valuable in dangerous situations,” Calamaio said.

“As the only academic institution taking part, UAH will be working on three fronts: technological development, integration testing and operational deployment,” Calamaio said. “We’ll be operating UAS in response to the hazardous material spill streaming video, imagery and real-time location of the aircraft.”

UAH’s role includes “testing a variety of emerging technologies for plug-and-play solutions,” Calamaio said.

“Some of the key capability gaps that DHS has identified are tools for resource tracking, image and video analysis, and common operating pictures for situational awareness platforms.”

After suggesting it to DHS, RSESC will also gather drone imagery of the experimental site beforehand, so that comparative imagery for damage assessment can become a part of the testing, Calamaio said.

Involvement in the experiment is a first step toward a greater disaster preparedness research and development role for RSESC’s UAS research, Hendrix said.

“This lays the foundation and framework for what we are going to do as we evolve.”