Drone Technology Proves Beneficial to Emergency Response

School of Computing and Engineering Faculty Leads Project to Improve Real-time Emergency Response

What does an emergency response drone experiment have to do with a solar eclipse? For University of Missouri-Kansas City Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Dr. ZhiQiang Chen and his team of research specialists, the recent solar eclipse was the perfect day to test how drone technology can assist emergency management directors by providing real-time situational awareness.

The team of specialists consisting of local registered drone pilots, first responders, private sectors and emergency officials met early the morning of Aug. 22 to monitor traffic using drone technology as travelers made their way St. Joseph, Mo. to view the solar eclipse at one of its nearest paths of totality.

“We expected thousands of people to travel to St. Joseph, Mo. to observe the eclipse,” said Chen, adding that heavy, stand-still traffic along Interstate 29 and US Highway 36 had the potential to create problems that could restrict emergency response efforts. For Dr. Chen’s research, the recent solar eclipse and the team’s drone experiment went hand-in-hand.

Drones flew alongside both highways livestreaming from the air to the University of Missouri Extension office located in Buchanan County, ground zero for the project. Real-time video data was transmitted to remote cloud servers and broadcasted through a web interface, thanks to the development led by graduate student researcher Max Chen. Viewing was picked up simultaneously from several locations and monitored by Emergency Management Coordinator of Buchanan County Bill Brinton. Although heavy rain delayed much of the morning’s expected traffic, Chen said the test was successful.

“We showed that technology and the power of a drone network can serve as a big asset to emergency response,” said Chen. Prior to the Aug. 22 test, Chen, alongside staff from the University of Missouri Extension office, hosted a workshop open to emergency response officials and community drone pilots to develop the response technology model. Workshop attendees assisted in monitoring during the eclipse.

The team proved that a coordinated drone network and real-time data streaming can provide emergency managers with the early and virtual access to disaster sites they need. They can then accurately assess damage and safety concerns, as well as the most effective access routes to persons in need of support. The technology will provide visual and technical information to a cloud-based GIS (geographical information system) site, which will produce clear, accurate and real-time visual analytics to emergency response directors for more objective decision-making.

“Community-based technology and an equipped network is a solution for emergency response,” said Chen.

In the future, drone technologies could be deployed allowing citizen scientists (pilots and residents in rural/urban areas) to assist first responders in managing disaster at a more rapid or even real-time pace.

“Nothing like this has been done before,” said Chen, adding that the team’s research is invaluable. Ideally, Chen would like to see autotomized drones as new front ends of disaster sensing added to the response technologies used today that produce real-time disaster analytics. He’d also like to work extensively with stakeholders, firefighters and pilots, to pursue federal funding to expand upon his research.

This project is funded by a Missouri Extension Broader Impacts Network (BIN) award; part of funding and drone support also come from the Provost’s Strategic Awards. UMKC’s RooFly program, led by Dr. Travis Fields, demonstrated the tethered drone technology that potentially provides the capability of ultra-long-endurance disaster site monitoring. Key contributors to this project include: Conne Burnham, Beverly Maltsberger, and Kent Shannon at Missouri Extension, Bill Brinton (Buchanan County Emergency Management Director), and Blair Shock (Clinton County Emergency Management Director). The cloud infrastructure is provided by Microsoft through the Microsoft Azure Sponsorship.

The team will present the results of the project and the potential for drone applications to enhance emergency response efforts at the annual EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) workshop in Illinois in September.

Project team members include:

Dr. ZhiQiang Chen, Civil and Mechanical Engineering, UMKC
Conne Burnham, Extension Emergency Management
Beverly Maltsberger, Community Development Specialist
Kent Shannon, Extension Agricultural Engineering Specialist
David Baker, Broader Impacts Project Coordinator
Bill Brinton, Buchanan County Emergency Management Director
Blair Shock, Clinton County Emergency Management Director
Shannon White, State 4-H Specialist
Leslie Crews, Fire and Rescue Training Institute
Travis Fields, Assistant Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, UMKC

Drone images from Interstate 29 and US Highway 36

View more photos from the experiment

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