Mapping disasters in 3D

April 5, 2009

  Vodpod videos no longer available.

Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University (TAMU) create software to reconstruct 3D scenes of disasters from 2d photographs taken by flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s).

Picture this; an earthquake devastates a major Chinese city.  Rubble is everywhere, no one knows where the survivors are.  

A team of researchers suggests a new system may help first responders gain a better understanding of their environment through the use of flying robots and 3D reconstruction software.  

[The system] deploys several small unmanned air vehicles (SUAVs), such as AirRobot quadrotors, to take snapshots of the rubble. The pictures are then uploaded to a software program called RubbleViewer, which quickly builds a three-dimensional map of the area that users can intuitively navigate. More efficient than drawing by hand, this system is also cheaper and more portable than the alternative–using helicopter-mounted lasers to map the rubble.

Last time I checked “using helicopter mounted lasers to map the rubble” was still a tad beyond most humanitarian budgets.  But who knows what wonders the G20 stimulus package might provide?  In any case, it’s an interesting proof of concept that could be scaled to market over time, thus lowering the price and becoming potentially useful to combat-style first responders in urban environments in the future.


Paul Currion on the “crisis” of crowdsourcing in a crisis

March 31, 2009

 

Paul Currion (humanitarian.info) has started an excellent critique of crowdsourced information in crisis, responding to two excellent posts by Patrick Phillipe Meyer (iRevolution).

Instead of incestuously summarising here, I refer readers to Patrick’s original posts:

And then to Paul’s critique here:

As well as an HFP blog related plug here:

We hope Patrick replies. Updates to follow as they emerge.


Climate: 1, Geoengineering: 0, Ocean iron fertilization experiment doesn’t work as planned

March 29, 2009
Satellitenaufnahme der Chlorophyllkonzentrationen

Satellite image of sea-surface chlorophyll concentrations with our bloom encircled. Note much larger natural bloom on the upper right and the generally higher values in the southeast than elsewhere. Graphic: NASA (http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov)

The verdict from one of the first real world geoengineering experiments?  It didn’t work (but they learned a lot).

A team of scientists from the German National Institute of Oceaonography and the Alfred Wegener Institute recently attempted one of the first large scale experiments in oceanic geoengineering.  

The team fertilized a 300 square kilometre patch of ocean with six tonnes of dissolved iron in an effort to sequester excess CO2.  The idea was that certain kinds of plankton eat the iron, die, then sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking tonnes of CO2 with them.  Unfortunately it didn’t work as expected.

From the press release:

The cooperative project Lohafex has yielded new insights on how ocean ecosystems function. But it has dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus mitigate global warming.

Why did it dampen hopes?  Christine Lepisto has an excellent summary over at Treehugger.  She writes:

The experiment started out following scientists’ predictions. After the addition of the iron source to the swirling current, phytoplankton biomass doubled, as can be seen by the orange-reddish swirl in the NASA image above. But the growth was mainly a soft and tasty algae called Phaeocystis. Other little creatures, known as copepods, moved in quickly to gobble up the algae, soon followed by shrimp-like amphipods which lunched on the copepods. Ultimately, these amphipods end up in the bellies of squid and fin whales, so maybe iron fertilization could be a geo-engineering solution for supporting these top-of-the-food-chain species. But certainly, the experiment did not result in tons of CO2 safely sequestered on the ocean floor, proving the iron fertilization hypothesis not yet ripe for geo-engineering scale games with mother nature.

The experiments were not a failure from a scientific point of view, the press release notes that a tremendous amount of new data and information was gained.  But it does suggest that iron fertilisation is unlikely to be a solution to our climate change concerns.

This experimental data confirms many of the anxieties of commentators writing about geoengineering, which we have previously covered here (“Irreversible Climate Change, Meet Unstoppable Political Force”).


6 out of 10 people worldwide use mobile phones – ICT Development Index compares 154 countries

March 29, 2009

The International Telecommunications Union released their annual survey of ICT usage worldwide this month.

The report (press release, full PDF), compares information and telecommunications technology (ICT) over 154 different countries, from 2002 to 2007.

The most advanced countries in terms of ICT were found mostly in Northern Europe, although South Korea came in second (above both the US and the UK).  Sweden topped the list. 

Poorer countries, notably this in Africa, were found to have lower ICT development scores, as would be expected.  Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Viet Nam, however, have made rapid growth over the last 5 years (due mostly to the combination of combined mobile phone users and Internet adoption).

Other notable statistics from the report include:

  • On average the world increased its ICT usage by over 30% in the past 5 years.  
  • 23 out of 100 of the world’s inhabitants use the Internet.
  • There are approximately 3x as many mobile phone users as fixed line users.
  • ICT costs are lowest in Singapore and the United States, accounting for less than 1% of monthly expenses.
  • ICT costs ranged between 40 and 72% in the bottom least developed countries, a clear indication of their unavailability for the general public.

Hackers have already attacked US electric grid

March 28, 2009

electric-tower

GreenerComputing reflects on CIA reports recently released which admits that hackers from around the world have already attacked the US electric grid.

A year ago at the the critical infrastructure SANS SCADA Summit in New Orleans, the CIA said that hackers had already hacked into the networks of power companies overseas. The site SecurityFocus reported:

The cases involved unknown attackers compromising a utilities company’s network and then demanding ransom from the firm. In at least one case, the attack cause a power outage that affected multiple cities, the CIA analyst said.

The attacks were launched via the Internet. Here’s the full statement that the CIA official gave, according to the SANS Institute:

“We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.”

 


Robotic warfare and humanitarian aid

March 27, 2009

reaper_afgan

CNET.com interviews P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

The interview describes recent developments in the use of robots and autonomous or remote vehicles in conflict environments.  One of the most interesting questions, from a humanitarian standpoint, was this one:

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? 

Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

The quote, “that’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas” could well apply to a range of issues faced by future humanitarian organisations.  And not just aid organisations, but any organisation grappling with the changing dimensions of technology, law, and ethics in a world of ever increasing change.

Of course these kinds of technologies don`t only have to be used for killing.  Imagine autonomous aerial drones equiped with devices to seek out, map and catalogue unexploded land mines and other ordinance.  Such a flying robot could not only map and identify the location of such hidden killers, but then communicate to other friendly robots to come and disarm or detonate them.  Or picture a world where Big Dog-like robots could carry aid and equipment to disaster torn areas that would be too difficult to navigate by truck?  There is then the familiar premise of the old Wim Wenders film, “The End of Violence“.

It all seems rather science fiction perhaps, and would require a shift in the values of production of deployment of such devices.  But then again it wasn’t too long ago when unmanned flying killing machines seemed a little bit science fiction as well.  As usual, these end up being cultural and political choices, not technological ones.

The full interview is here.


Political net attacks on the rise

March 25, 2009

 

Kevin Siers, North Carolina - Editorial cartoons from the Charlotte Observer

Kevin Siers, North Carolina - Editorial cartoons from the Charlotte Observer

The MIT Technology Review has an excellent interview with a series of Internet security experts, which finds that politically motivated net attacks are sharply on the rise.

When armed conflict flared up between Russia and Georgia last summer, the smaller country also found itself subject to a crippling, coordinated Internet attack. An army of PCs controlled by hackers with strong ties to Russian hacking groups flooded Georgian sites with dummy requests, making it near impossible for them to respond to legitimate traffic. The attacks came fast and furious, at times directing 800 megabits of data per second at a targeted website.

Wikipedia defines a denial-of-service attack (DOS) as ” an attempt to make a computer resource unavailable to its intended users”.  The US Computer Emergency Response Team has an overview here, observing that most DOS attacks involve:

  • unusually slow network performance (opening files or accessing web sites)
  • unavailability of a particular web site
  • inability to access any web site
  • dramatic increase in the amount of spam you receive in your account
  • While this is merely inconvenient for most public websites, such attacks effect every aspect of the internet and can be used to cripple email, file transfers, intranets, and all means of web-based communication.

    Better use of cyber infrastructure, including such net attacks, will be an increasingly common trend in the future.  Imagine if aid agencies themselves become the target of such attacks?  What if the humanitarian expulsion from Darfur also involved sophisticated efforts to cripple aid groups at their core, vis-a-vis target denial of service attacks? 

    UPDATE – Paul Currion, as usual, has a fantastic example of this kind of thing from Sudan, posted mere hours before this one!  Well done Paul and thanks for the link!

    UPDATE 2 – Humanitarian.info provides more examples on how this is already affected aid agencies (“Denial of service = denial of reality”).  It seems our “hypothetical” question about Darfur has actually already happened.  Do any other HFP Blog readers out there know of similar attacks on aid agencies and NGO’s?