September 25, 2009

Enhanced Situational Awareness for First Responders

By Andy Vidan and Ron Hoffeld, MIT Lincoln Laboratory

Emergency responders are typically hampered by a lack of real-time situational awareness when making critical decisions in response to rapidly changing conditions and life-threatening situations. In order to provide enhanced situational awareness to responders on the ground, MIT Lincoln Laboratory has installed a camera system with real-time video downlink capability on a Cal Fire emergency response aircraft. This aircraft is being used for wildland fire reconnaissance, and to direct fire retardant airdrops during fires. The main features of the camera system and air-to-ground communication include:

  • Visible and IR video and still image capability streamed in real-time
  • Image geo-referencing and stabilization
  • Geo-referenced camera pointing and fixed camera field of regard on a stationary ground position
  • Full-motion camera control by either air or ground personnel

    EO\IR camera mounted on the fuselage of the Cal Fire Air Attack 330 emergency response aircraft. The view on the left shows the camera optics, while the view above shows the back side of the camera enclosure.

    Communication between the ground and aircraft is through a high-gain tracking antenna on the ground and an omni-directional antenna mounted on the plane. The high-gain tracking antenna was mounted on one of the Cuyamaca Mountain peaks in August 2009, enabling line-of-sight access to roughly 80% of the San Diego County airspace. This, coupled with the nominal 40 mile range capability of the tracking antenna, provides persistent communication capability over most areas of interest within the county.

    High-gain tracking antenna during a test run (top) and after being installed in the Cuyamaca Mountains (right).

    HPWREN, UCSD Supercomputing Center's High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network run by Hans-Werner Braun, is a key partner in this research effort, providing the critical high-bandwidth data link between the mountain peak and the Internet. Through HPWREN, remote operation of the equipment is possible, as is live streaming of full-motion video from the aircraft to points on the ground. The HPWREN team has assisted in the installation and testing of the equipment on the mountain peak. A series of flight tests have been conducted over the last few weeks examining the performance of the air-to-ground communication.

    A 48 megabyte video shows an early test run, a 74 megabyte video shows operations above an actual fire, and a 8 megabyte video shows the tracking antenna following the Cal Fire airplane.

    Flight test results examining signal-to-noise as a function of distance visualized in Google Earth.

    Google earth KML file for this visualization.

    The live streaming video is one example of situational awareness data that is being developed. MIT Lincoln Laboratory, in collaboration with operational partners in the California emergency response community, is developing and integrating a suite of sensors, communications, visualization and collaboration technologies in a net-centric framework to provide responders and decision-makers a real-time situational awareness system. Through collaboration with HPWREN, which serves as the only high-bandwidth communication infrastructure across the remote areas of Southern California, critical data can be broadly distributed to first responders and will therefore assist federal, state, county and tribal emergency response agencies in developing response strategies and executing operational tasks.

    This work is sponsored by the Department of the Air Force under Air Force Contract DA8721-05-C-0002. Opinions, interpretations, conclusions and recommendations are those of the authors and are not necessarily endorsed by the United States Government.

    Main HPWREN web site (includes information for acknowledgments/disclaimers and feedback/contact)