Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, mudslides and forest fires can dramatically change the landscape or infrastructure of an area. These disasters can lead to rerouted rivers, flooded or damaged roads, and collapsed bridges or buildings, making normal routes that first responders use unavailable. It’s crucial that these first responders have updated maps to find safe routes in their affected areas and know which locations need aid.
Creating maps after a disaster comes with a number of challenges that our software, Ikena ISR, is built to address.
1. Poor weather conditions.
It can take several days or weeks to get decent satellite imagery depending on weather conditions and satellite location. Even when a satellite is in the area and tasked to image the disaster scene, inclement weather like clouds or smoke and dust from the site can prevent them from taking clear photos. Only low flying aircraft such as small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS – often referred to as drones) can fly under the cloud cover to survey the area. Even though these aircraft can avoid the clouds, they may still run into environmental issues such as fog, smoke, wind (causing stability issues), low light or contrast issues. Ikena ISR was built with sophisticated image processing algorithms to improve the quality of live video feeds and account for these issues. If you’re creating a map, clear imagery is a must.
2. Lack of mapping and image processing technology.
Typically, the first aircraft on the scene are helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft from the Coast Guard, Air National Guard, or Civil Air Patrol, which may be equipped with video cameras, but lack sophisticated imaging and mapping capabilities. Small, unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, also lack these capabilities.
Our geospatial data tool, Matchpoint, is built on top of Ikena ISR’s sophisticated image processing and computer vision software. Matchpoint can correct for inaccurate metadata and even geo-reference video with no geospatial information. With accurate metadata, each pixel in a video becomes a coordinate that allows the user to pinpoint the exact location of any object in the scene.
By referencing a few key features like a building or road intersection within a video to existing base map imagery such as Google Earth, Matchpoint is able to create or correct the camera model estimation to provide positional data that is far more accurate than what is derived through traditional GPS/INS devices. With geo-referenced video, the user can quickly derive coordinates, create accurate 2D maps and render video frames within GIS systems such as Google Earth and ArcGIS. The end result is a fresh map that gives first responders an accurate picture of what an area looks like at that point in time.
3. Accurate information needs to be shared quickly.
Patrick Meier, an internationally-recognized expert and consultant on humanitarian technology and innovation, recently wrote a blog post about the value of timely information during disasters. (Side note – if you haven’t read his blog, I highly recommend it.)
In his post, he shares the chart below created by FEMA using data from a survey of emergency response professionals. In a nutshell, it shows the decline in value of information after a certain number of hours. There’s a very obvious, steep decline in value over the first 72 hours. This really drives home the importance of collecting and analyzing data as quickly as possible when time, money and most importantly, lives, are on the line.
Fast Mapping is Critical
First responders don’t have the luxury of waiting days or weeks for information to be processed and shared. Existing drone mapping software can take hours or even days to create a new map, where Ikena ISR can create 2D maps on the fly, in real time. We can do this because of a few unique factors. First, our software has been highly optimized to use GPUs for processing which is between 10-15 times faster than with a CPU alone. This enables the software to process live video feeds with no build up in latency, giving the user the ability to share information immediately rather than waiting for the aircraft to land and post process the video at a later time.
Second, Ikena ISR uses a different approach to 2D mapping, derived from our patented super-resolution algorithms. Our software is able to derive the camera model from the raw pixels and then de-warp the video frames for fast and accurate stitching.
Finally, for more accurate positioning, Matchpoint can be used as a post processing tool to refine the positional metadata and create more accurate mosaics within minutes or hours after capturing the data.
Building a Disaster Response Network
Disaster response is a new area for us, but we aren’t strangers to high-stakes situations. We have spent the last 10 years working with some of the most demanding military customers, including Special Operations Forces. Many of them fly in places where recent maps and imagery don’t exist, making the video they capture from drones their only source for up-to-date information. Ikena ISR, paired with video from drones or other aerial platforms, provides the same capability to the disaster relief community with a way to quickly collect video, process it, create accurate 2D maps and share them with first responders and local communities.
Our goal is to help build a global network of individuals and organizations that are equipped with Ikena ISR so they can respond to disasters immediately after they happen. One step we’ve taken in building this network was joining UAViators, an organization focused on promoting the safe use of drones. Their network is made up of multiple organizations such as the American Red Cross, Google and DJI, and seeks to coordinate the effective use of drones for data collection and communication services.
We’ve also partnered with organizations that work with customers in the disaster response space like aerial sensor company Ascent Vision, and have been working closely with sUAS manufacturer, Aeryon Labs, to test and improve compatibility between our software and their SkyRanger product. By partnering with these and other companies, we’re looking to create end-to-end solutions to help customers get the most out of their aerial video, regardless of what platform they use.
Earthquake in Ecuador
As I was working on this post, a magnitude-7.8 Earthquake occured in Ecuador. If you or your organization is in the area, has the proper permits, and plan to fly a UAV to capture video, please let us know. We’d like to volunteer our time to process that video and create updated 2D maps of the area to share with emergency responders and the public. You can contact us at 650-288-1164 or through this form.