Imaging disaster areas

Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute have developed a high-resolution imaging system that attaches to a helicopter to create a complete and detailed picture of areas devastated by natural disaster.

Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have developed a high-resolution imaging system that can be attached to a helicopter to create a complete and detailed picture of an area devastated by a hurricane or other natural disaster.

The resulting visual information could be used to estimate the number of refugees and assess the need for health and humanitarian services.

The imaging system – designed by GTRI engineers David Price and Gary Gray – is called the ‘Mini ModPOD’, which stands for ‘Miniature Modular Photographic Observation Device.’

It consists of an off-the-shelf Canon Digital Rebel XTi digital camera, a global positioning system receiver, a small circuit board that uploads mission parameters, and an inertial measurement unit that measures the aircraft’s rate of acceleration and changes in rotational attributes, including pitch, roll and yaw.

The images collected from the system can be stitched together to create a complete picture of the affected area.

Aid organisations currently do not have a quick and accurate way to determine how many people need assistance. Satellites can collect images of areas affected by a natural disaster, but there are dissemination restrictions and cloud cover can prevent collection of images.

Benjamin Sklaver, a project officer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) International Emergency and Refugee Health Branch, said: ‘Without a real-time map, it’s very hard to do population and demographic estimates to figure out where people are, how they are moving, how they are spaced out and even how many people you have on the ground.

‘This technology does not exist currently, so GTRI’s imaging system is really an innovative project.’

The imaging system was developed with funding from the CDC, and agency officials would like to begin using the device as soon as possible. After responding to the recent devastation caused by Hurricanes Hanna and Ike, the CDC asked GTRI to accelerate delivery of the imaging device for use during the 2008 hurricane season.

Price said: ‘We plan to package the system for use on Coast Guard UH-60J Black Hawk helicopters, which were among the first to fly over Haiti following Hanna’s devastation.’

An image collected by the Mini ModPOD system