Climate change and the need to prepare for more ferocious natural disasters has divided the country. There’s no end to the partisan bickering in Washington D.C. over what does or doesn’t need to be done. But there is something big happening outside the walls of Congress that will help save lives and property if and when those devastating events take place.
The House Oversight Committee held a hearing on April 9th to address what the committee calls “a massive and growing threat to the United States” in reference to climate change, and how that can also affect our national security. The hearing overview says that climate change “is projected to significantly affect human health, the economy, and the environment in the United States” and that basically, we need to do a whole lot more to protect our nation and our military installations.
The Climate Change Debate
The hearing turned into more of a partisan feud, however, and what CNN described as a “surreal spectacle in which one side tried to address an issue that the other side largely refused to accept as valid.” (1) Without going into all the details, let’s just say the hearing didn’t accomplish much more than a tug-of-war between the believers and the non-believers.
But while that battle festers, there’s another universe of technology developments that is growing exponentially around the world, and converging into a sophisticated network that will transform the way we respond to natural disasters. One of the world’s most progressive thinkers, Peter Diamandis, has outlined some of these technologies in a blog called: “Revolutionizing Disaster Relief: A Tale of Convergence.” (2)
Here are the three things he feels will make the biggest impacts:
1. Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Mapping
The first one is the use of artificial intelligence to create predictive maps. Diamandis says, “When it comes to immediate and high-precision emergency response, data is gold.” And the world is undergoing a big transformation right now, into a massive communication network.
Access to the internet is spreading to all corners of the world as companies like Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Facebook launch satellites. Cellular networks are getting more robust with 5G telecommunications. There’s no lack of social media platforms to broadcast location, damage, or the need for help. Diamandis says, “Armed with the power of data broadcasting and the force of the crowd, disaster victims now play a vital role in emergency response.”
He offered an example of crowdsourced intelligence from 2007 in Kenya when violence broke out during an election. A blogger posted a question on the internet, asking: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring and put it on a map?” Four techies responded, built a platform that processed information from 40,000 text message reports. They put that information into a map-form and then used that to send out alerts. That platform has been used dozens of times since then around the globe as a crisis-mapping software.
Expand that technology to a growing network of sensors that can monitor all the aspects of our climate and natural disasters. He mentioned a company called One Concern that is partnering with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities to assign digital fingerprints to every aspect of each city. These fingerprints will relay information about impacts from climate or disaster events. With the help of artificial intelligence, that information will make it possible to assess damage or help predict future events.
2. Autonomous Robots and Swarm Solutions
The second significant aspect for high-tech disaster response involves robots that can work in “swarms.” Diamandis mentioned one called the Cheetah III which was developed at MIT. It can run about 14 miles per hour and jump about two feet. It was designed to perform inspections in hazardous situations such as a chemical spill or nuclear accident.
Robots were used to inspect the Fukushima nuclear reactors that were destroyed by a tsunami in 2011. Diamandis reports that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is using water-cannon robots to fight fires, and that Fastbrick Robotics has produced a robot that will build a small fully-livable brick home in less than 3 days.
The frontier for robotic tasks is mind-boggling. We could soon have tiny robots that can search through debris for people trapped after an earthquake or something called RoboBees out of Harvard that can sit on walls or ceilings and assess structural damage.
3. Drones for Mapping and Relief Deliveries
Diamandis talks about drones as the third important tech contribution to disaster relief. They can not only be used for aerial monitoring and mapping, they can also be used to locate isolated survivors and to deliver supplies. They were used in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, flying more than a hundred missions over the city of Houston. Diamandis says, they not only monitored levee integrity but helped find people trapped by flood waters.
A California company called Zipline has been delivering life-saving medical supplies by drone since 2014 to remote areas in Rwanda and Tanzania. They can transport things like vaccines, medications, and blood supplies much faster than ground-based transportation. Diamandis says that drones will soon be able to carry much heavier loads.
The prospect of increasingly severe weather events and disasters is not very comforting, but it’s good to know that technology may help us survive these events as we debate the existence of a climate change problem.
(1) CNN Article