New technology giving first responders another tool to help during disasters

BOSTON — When it comes to saving lives in a disaster situation, seconds matter.

New technology being developed at Northeastern University could give first responders a new tool to beat that clock.

It’s a smart drone that does more than just take pictures.

“It’s agonizing as a responder to sit and wait, especially if you can hear people calling for help,” said Chris Grazioso, a member of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue team based in Beverly.

After an earthquake or a hurricane strikes, first responders need to wait and make sure it’s safe to go into buildings or cross a bridge to help victims.

“It’s really important,” Grazioso said.  “We take take structural engineers as part of our team to go and evaluate those things and sometimes it might take them a long time to gain access, to see if something is safe or not for us to even go inside and start rescuing.”

The need to act faster is driving the research of Northeastern professor Taskin Padir.

He’s working on a new generation of drones which provide first responders with a whole new range of information.

“Our goal is if we can go and look at places where they may look safe and sound from distance, but as you get closer you may notice a crack, you may notice a leak, things like that," Padir said.

His prototype is packed with sensitive cameras that detect small cracks and use a technology called “LIDAR”, short for light, detection, and radar.

Using these tools, the drone can scan structures for hidden threats that could cause a collapse or an explosion.

The data is put into an algorithm which can be analyzed before there are boots on the ground.

Padir said a human supervisor or inspector can take and look and figure out that the structure is compromised.

“There is no need to send in a first responder to a building that is about to collapse," he said.

First responders in Beverly agree, and like the idea that this technology could help them help others.

“The ability to go ahead and scout the terrain and scout the buildings and create an assessment of their stability without putting any of the people from the task force, whether they be engineers or rescue technicians into harm’s way, is a really valuable tool," team member Eric Frickee said.

Padir doesn’t have a specific timeline for this project, but hopes that something might be available in the field within five years.