If a disaster were to strike San Diego, a map showing damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure would be crucial for emergency crews to send out help.
So San Diego State geography professor Doug Stow has made it his mission to get that information as soon as possible with the latest aerial technology: drones.
With a $365,000 grant in hand, Stow is building a program that will create a before-and-after map in just minutes.
The first step is in the hands of emergency officials. Stow asks them to identify critical emergency locations like power stations, bridges, hospitals and dams. Stow and others then send out unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and piloted light sport aircraft (LSA) to take pictures of those places from above.
As they take pictures, the drones also record their GPS locations, which are saved in a computer program.
During a disaster, emergency personnel could use the same coordinates to send UAVs back to the essential spots and see if they have been damaged. The program is supposed to analyze the before-and-after images to spot the differences and highlight them to managers.
Stow hopes the program will detect crumbling walls, collapsed ceilings and buckled roads, among other things.
“The goal is for these images to look like they were taken by a stationary security camera, even though they were taken by an aircraft hundreds of feet overhead,” he said in a press release.
If the UAVs and LSA can be launched quickly, emergency crews could have a damage map within an hour or two after a disaster, Stow said.
But the project is not without its kinks. Stow and SDSU researchers, students and graduates are still trying to figure out how to exclude ordinary changes – like shadows or moving cars in a parking lot – from a damage map.
The San Diego County Office of Emergency Services and its counterpart in New Mexico are helping the researchers test out the software through simulated incidents, the school says.
“We think the UAV imaging market is about to explode,” Stow said. “Our technology can play an important role in its future.”
SDSU officials say the program builds on existing research from the school’s Center for Earth Systems Analysis Research for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Navy Postgraduate School.