Science and Technology News

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Predicting A Disaster

I like to know what I’m up against.

Whether it’s weather conditions, new video games, movies, I like to know what I’m walking into, what I’m dealing with, what I can expect.  I guess you could say I’m not a fan of surprises.

So when the Naval Research Laboratory told me they have developed a technology designed to predict a disaster, I was both impressed and attracted to this idea.  I mean, a program that can explain the mitigating factors of a tragedy before I have time to panic?  Sounds like my kind of crisis management.

As it turns out, it’s attractive to first responders and the military as well.

Adam Moses is a computer scientist with the Laboratory for Computational Physics and Fluid Dynamics, where he’s been working on a type of technology that could change the way we respond and react to a crisis situation.

It’s call the CT Analyst, which stands for Contaminate Transfer Analyst, and this baby is a high speed hypothetical possibility generator that can predict a disaster in real time.

“Basically, the CT Analyst is a chemical, biological and radiological plume model designed specifically for urban environments,” Adam explains.  “There are other tools that do this sort of work, but they’re focusing on large regions.  We want to focus on something that’s small, that’s a utility for first responders, firefighters, policemen, EMTs, etc.”

Basically, this program is designed predict the way a gas plume will travel through a city…in 3D.  Yeah that’s pretty cool.

So let’s put this into a scenario:

There’s an attack somewhere in a city.

Gas is flowing through the streets.  People are scared, in danger, hysterical.  You, as a first responder, have only minutes to react to this crisis.  Every second counts.  So what do you do first?  You find the source of the attack.  Now normally this would be a long process that includes sorting through the incoherent screaming and working within the cover of chaos, but not with the CT Analyst at the ready.

With a few simple commands this technology can accurately predict the source of the danger, where the gas will go, and what areas will be affected.  Oh, and it’s fast.  I mean lightning fast.

“Many simulations that do this kind of work will say ‘okay, give me that location, give me that direction and I’ll come up with a result’ and it will take five, ten minutes.  Except in a real instance you don’t [even] have five seconds or ten seconds.  You need something immediately.”

It’s the fastest on the market, and for a good reason.  The CT Analyst pre-calculates, so instead of actually having to come up your scenario at the time (which is not the most ideal approach to calamity containment) this technology allows the first response teams to know where the explosion is, what the wind conditions are, where the gas plume is headed.

You know, all the things that go flying through your head when you realize you’re about to be battling an intangible and potentially deadly gas.

This tool allows first responders to know exactly what they’re up against within seconds of them learning they were facing a threat in the first place.  Huh.  Well this sounds like something the military could really use, don’t you think?

It turns out that NRL is already one step ahead.

“We’re doing a lot of focusing right now on training simulators, both for law enforcement and for the military,” Adam says.  “People know about smoke bombs or a chlorine weapon of some kind but they don’t know actually what to look for in terms of symptoms.  We did a project with the secret service, and we’ve been working on some projects for the Marines.  It’s really just the push to get this tool integrated into other things.”

The National Guard has already had a taste of this technology when they collaborated with NRL to maintain order at the 2009 inauguration, and it only continues to improve.  So what kinds of scenarios can the CT Analyst really predict, anyway?

“Basically every scenario you can imagine has already been processed, so when it comes down to actually coming up with the scenario you need it’s already in there, it’s in a database it’s already in there.  You just have to look it up.”

Another advantage would be the urban landscape.  “We’re not dealing with hundreds of square miles.  We’re dealing with where you are on the street, where the fire trucks are headed, and more importantly where you can set up a triage zone, where you can put hospital tents, or whatever else you need.  You can know where that plume is headed – and where it is not – and you can plan for both instances.”

Being able to react, control and contain a crisis with time on your side?  That’s an advantage that benefits everyone.  And it gets better.  This isn’t one of those technologies that utilizes some complicated device that can only be activated in one place, and it needs a fingerprint scan or some kind of hair follicle sample or whatever.  The CT Analyst is integrated into programs many of us use every day.

“You can export all our data to Google Earth, you can import data from Google Earth,” says Adam Moses.  “A lot of other people are using our tool in a way where they never actually see what our view of the world looks like.”

It’s fast, it’s effective and it’s easy to use.  This is something that not only makes the difficult job of contending with a disaster easier, but it gives us an advantage that ever first responder could always us a little more of: time.  No one wants to contend with a disaster, but with the CT Analyst, the ability to save time, to save efforts, and to potentially save lives is making all the difference.

“CT Analyst is great,” Adam Moses says with a confident smile.  “I think it really is a sort of march to the future as far as technology like this goes.  The field of HAZMAT and first responder technology is still in its infancy in a lot of ways.  Especially in post 9/11, so there’s a lot left to be done there.  The CT Analyst can really help fill a lot of that void.”

The CT Analyst literally takes the guesswork out of a gas plume crisis, and when disaster strikes, knowing what you’re dealing with – and quickly – could be the difference between life and death.

For me?  I’m choosing life, thanks.  But that should come as no surprise.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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