Engineering researchers awarded major NSF grant for emergency informatics instrumentation

A group of 18 researchers has been awarded a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (NSF MRI) Program grant to acquire a modular state-of-the-art instrument to be used in a wide variety of disasters and exercises.The research team is led by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering's Robin Murphy (Raytheon Professor), Riccardo Gutierrez-Osuna (associate professor), Dezhen Song (assistant professor), Radu Stoleru (assistant professor), and the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Aaron Ames (assistant professor).The goal of the NSF MRI program is to enhance engineering research and training through research instrumentation that can be shared by multiple researchers and used for different projects.The $2 million grant funds the Mobile, Distributed Instrumentation for Response Research project (RESPOND-R). This project will bring together many researchers across diverse disciplines and will provide the first comprehensive, open source instrument for studying complex, emergent system interactions. It is based on the smaller "R4: Rescue Robots for Research and Response" grant, which held 13 rescue robot exercises with 17 universities and participated in 10 disasters including Hurricane Katrina and the Crandall Canyon Utah mine collapse, and is expected to have a greater impact on research and response.RESPOND-R allows emergency informatics researchers to capture the complex, real-time information flow and interactions between 15 unmanned systems and sensors, the physical world, and human decision-makers in realistic conditions at Disaster City®, homeland security exercises, or actual disasters."Emergency Informatics is the real-time collection, processing, distribution, and visualization of information for emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. It is literally a life and death field of inquiry that grounds large scale interactions between cyber-physical systems technologies, for example land, air, and marine unmanned systems, networks, and sensors; and their human team members under demanding environmental and temporal conditions," Murphy said.An advantage of the RESPOND-R system is that it is modular, allowing researchers to work with subsets of the instrument and at different scales. Song will lead the high-speed vision system component of RESPOND-R, which will be used to study nonlinear dynamics of moving objects for better vision-based detection and recognition, while Gutierrez-Osuna will spearhead the research of wearable sensors that will be used to investigate the relationship between physiological variables and the mental stress of responders in ambulatory scenarios. Ames will direct the use and incorporation of cyber-physical control algorithms.Another advantage of RESPOND-R is that it will allow for agile communication between responders and authorities in disaster situations.Stoleru said, "Communication is a major challenge for the wireless ad hoc and sensor networks deployed in these types of environments. The unmanned vehicles, fitted with sensors and wireless transceivers, will become part of a wireless mesh network, thus enabling communication in these adverse conditions."A wireless mesh network works differently from the standard networks that we have in our offices and homes. Instead of only communicating via one route in a standard network, a mesh provides multiple routes of communication between the same points by using the individual members of the network as routing nodes.If one path breaks, the mesh will automatically compensate by finding another route. If one route gets congested, the mesh can send packets along another path to relieve congestion. No fixed architecture is required, thus making the network very adaptable to different disaster situations.Ultimately, the researchers say, REPSOND-R will save lives and reduce the negative impact of disasters.Written by Tony Okonski, tonyo@cse.tamu.edu