If a forest fire is set to break out in Spain or hazardous substances spread after an accident in Germany, sensors or warning apps sound an automatic alarm.
From digitally connected trees and helmets with built-in sensors that measure air quality, toxins and motion to protective clothing that relays continuous temperature, heartbeat and respiratory rate information, the Internet of Things
(IoT) is revolutionizing not just production in the factory of the future; digital networks can help save lives during disaster relief work. IoT helps identify life-threatening hazards, give warning of them and evacuate people from dangerous situations, maintain communications in an emergency or provide effective support for relief workers in disaster areas.
Sensors Measure Shock Waves
Ground movement acceleration sensors trigger earthquake early warnings. Scientists use the different shock waves that a tremor emits to issue a warning as early as possible. “We first receive a small, fast signal that does not much damage; the potentially dangerous waves then follow,” says geophysicist Friedemann Wenzel of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. That may not leave much time for an alarm – usually between seconds and a little over a minute – but it is enough to initiate protective measures. Express trains and elevators can be halted. Factories can swing the arms of industrial robots into a secure position.
App Sounds the Alarm
Seismic monitoring stations are not the only source of data about imminent earthquakes. Many structures such as bridges or high-rise buildings have built-in sensors that continuously monitor their condition. This data can also improve early warning systems. MyShake, a free app, uses the acceleration sensors of smartphones to compare shocks to those that occur during an earthquake. If enough cellphones in a given area register the characteristic signals, an alarm can be triggered. Research scientists have developed an algorithm that filters out vibrations, which occur when walking, dancing or dropping the phone on the floor, from those that occur during a quake. The app then sends the sensor data and the GPS coordinates to a central server. Currently, MyShake can identify an earthquake of more than 5 on the Richter scale at a distance of 10 kilometers.
The Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) also uses smartphones to relay warnings. The free warning app NINA for iOS and Android sends smartphone users a push message, warning them of storms, floods, large-scale fires or the spread of hazardous substances – including at their actual location. NINA collects data
from the BBK, the German Meteorological Service and the state flood control centers. In view of the increasing frequency of extreme weather situations the app currently sends up to two billion push messages per month.
Sensor Network for Nuclear Power Stations
For years, the Internet of Things has been of valuable assistance in monitoring nuclear power stations – in Baden-Württemberg, for example, where the Ministry for the Environment, Climate and Energy has set up the KFÜ, a complex measurement and information system, to oversee Neckarwestheim, Philippsburg and Obrigheim nuclear power stations. This reactor remote monitoring system records more than a billion measurements a day on a dedicated sensor network. Developed by T-Systems, it monitors automatically, autonomously and round the clock the operating status of the plant, including emissions into air and water and any local release of radioactive matter. If thresholds are exceeded, the KFÜ automatically alarms the on-call service and notifies the authorities.
When the Forest Calls the Fire Service
In Spain, sensors attached to trees record parameters that change during forest fires (such as temperature, humidity, CO2 and CO). If they reach critical levels the forest notifies the fire service. The sensors provide GPS coordinates to help the firefighters localize the fire. In Rio de Janeiro control stations record water and power supply, weather and traffic data and send it straight to an operations center. In an emergency, which can range from traffic congestion to severe thunderstorms, the Center tweets the news to its over 50,000 followers and sends additional messages by text or e-mail.
Fire Service Plans and Vital Functions
The sooner information is available, the more effective the protection, and that definitely applies to the information that fire and rescue services receive. During disaster relief, keeping rescue workers up to date about the situation on the ground from callout to arrival is increasingly important. Experts agree that without connected data modern firefighting and disaster relief work will no longer be able to function efficiently on the future. Physical and virtual reality are combined in such a way that rescue workers can operate faster and more precisely at the scene. By wearing augmented reality glasses, rescue workers can check construction plans, accident data sheets or details of fire service plans on-site. Measuring devices in protective clothing continuously measure vital functions such as body temperature, heartbeat and respiration rate. This data is encrypted and relayed in real time to a control center, where it is monitored.
The Flying Eye
In Austria, the Red Cross is currently testing how semi-autonomously controlled vehicles can help during disaster relief work. Thanks to modern drone technology a Land Rover Discovery can become a lifesaver. A drone is even able to take off from and land on the vehicle while it is moving. If the camera drone is in the air, images can be sent live to rescue teams that can then respond faster and more effectively to landslides, floods, earthquakes or avalanches and will have more time and more precise information to help them save lives.