RPI’s Disaster Management Simulator

Friday, June 8, 2012 @ 11:06 AM gHale

A disaster may never occur, but it is nice to know if one does, a system is in place to take on whatever elements present themselves.

That is why engineers and scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, are developing powerful decision-making and data visualization tools for emergency management. These tools aim to help law enforcement, health officials, water and electric utilities, and others collaboratively and effectively respond to disasters.

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Three RPI researchers demonstrated a prototype of this new technology for federal, state, and local officials, including representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and New York state.

The interdisciplinary research project is a collaboration between William “Al” Wallace, the Yamada Corporation Professor at RPI, and a member of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE); Barbara Cutler, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science; and David Mendonça, associate professor in ISE.

“Just as disaster response is a collaboration between many different agencies and decision makers, a project of this scope and ambition requires the expertise of faculty and students from different disciplines,” said Wallace, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We are delighted to share our progress with our friends and partners at federal, state, and other agencies. Their feedback, comments, and suggestions are vital to the progress and success of our research.”

This new technology combines Wallace’s expertise in infrastructure systems, Cutler’s research on augmented reality and data visualization, and Mendonça’s research on improvisation and decision making in unique disaster and emergency situations.

The prototype features a map of a disaster area projected onto the movie theater-sized screen, with overlays detailing the location of hospitals, power plants, temporary shelters, and many other key landmarks, infrastructure, and critical data. Due to the complexity and interconnectedness of these infrastructure systems and data, responding organizations must collaborate to be effective. The system enables emergency officials from different backgrounds and different agencies to interact with the data collaboratively and at the same time.

The researchers are also developing ways to use this environment to better study decision making. It is rare for researchers to have an opportunity to observe the work of emergency response managers and responding organizations during an actual disaster. So the new technology is able to simulate emergency situations using data from past disasters and other simulations techniques.

Funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, as well as a Seed Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at RPI, this project can advance basic knowledge of sources of resilience — or “bounce back” — in infrastructure systems, and to produce tools and technologies for leveraging these sources.