Researchers have built a portable camera that can be attached to a helicopter and produce detailed images of an area hit by a hurricane or other natural disasters faster and at lower cost than is currently possible.
Many emergency-response agencies do not have a swift and accurate way to count people in disaster zones to determine the level of assistance needed.
Satellites can be used, but are often inhibited by cloud cover. And without an up-to-the-minute picture of the ground that shows how victims are spread out, population estimates are difficult to make, said David Price, a senior technologist at Georgia Tech Research Institute who helped design the project.
The institute has developed a low-cost system that researchers said can reliably gauge the extent of the damage and the number of victims.
The miniature modular observation device, or ModPOD, can be attached to a helicopter or an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Price has tested it on several flights, one of which was over a college campus.
“[In the photos] we could clearly see the people on the courts playing tennis, and some students studying at tables nearby,” Price said. “But what really got us excited was being able to clearly see the tennis balls on the courts. They were very clear and this proved we could resolve objects smaller than 3 inches or so.” The team also caught a baseball player hitting inside a batting cage and the ball was visible in flight, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the project and plans to package the system for use on the Coast Guard’s UH-60J Black Hawk helicopters. It will also be available to agencies such as the American Red Cross.
The device employs a commercial Canon Digital Rebel XTi digital camera and a Global Positioning System receiver, which labels each picture’s position. There is also a unit that measures the degree to which the vehicle’s nose points up or down and how much it tilts left or right. That helps to determine the exact latitude and longitude of each photo. The camera can shoot three photos per second with the helicopter flying at altitudes of 500 to 1,000 feet, Price said.
Since the ModPOD uses components that are commercially available, the entire cost of developing the project was around $75,000, Price said. The per-unit cost is expected to be perhaps a few thousand dollars, he added.
But the ModPOD has not been tested in disaster conditions. It is possible that debris and other obstacles might make it more challenging to obtain an accurate head count.
The pictures would be clear regardless of conditions on the ground, Price said.