Can technology reduce the impact of natural disasters?
An onslaught of tornadoes in the Midwest, a barrage of hurricanes in the gulf, a drought in Montana and record-breaking fires walloping California — there has been a melee of natural disasters of late.
Since the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began recording severe weather events in 1980, it has noted that the “U.S. has experienced a rising number of events that cause significant amounts of damage.”
However, 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States. That’s 16 different disasters, each amounting to billions of dollars in damages. The NOAA reported that the final bill racked up more than $300 billion, which obviously doesn’t include the mental and emotional costs.
While studying weather patterns is still important, the solution encompasses more than that. Early warning systems are key to mitigating the impact of natural disasters. Here’s how the tech industry can help us become better prepared for the instantaneous challenges of natural disasters — and recover quicker in their wake.
Saving homes from wildfires
Parched neighborhoods make perfect kindling for a wildfire, but smart sprinklers may prove effective in fending them off. Back in 2015, for example, an Australian man activated his sprinklers with his smartphone before a wildfire nearly swallowed his ranch.
It’s amazing that he was able to save his home from the palm of his hand, but he was only able to because he was alerted of the fire by friends and family. That said, what if a smart irrigation system could respond automatically when it detects, say, rising temperatures?
That’s what one engineer asked in the wake of the North Bay Fires, noting that installing such a system wouldn’t be so expensive.
In combination with non-flammable building materials, exterior sprinkler systems could be triggered by rising temperatures. How? Relatively inexpensive smart home sensors on the market detect heat and humidity, and they could broadcast a Wi-Fi signal when temps near the home surpass a set threshold.
The fire detection system from Semtech, for example, uses real-time analytics, reporting and geolocation to detect the presence of smoke, gas or flames. Plus, it automatically notifies building owners in an emergency. It’s not so far-fetched that it might also work to trigger automatic response systems against an advancing blaze.
For greater water power, such a system might also employ a pump to wield more water from nearby koi ponds, swimming pools or standby cisterns or tanks. In the event of power failure, solar-powered generators keep the whole system working. Existing generators could power a home’s water supply for several hours. What’s more, prices for generators have dropped dramatically, making them more accessible.
It’s also important to design homes that are fire-resistant in the first place. The Flex House is paving the way, using inflammable fiber siding and an ecosystem of smart home features that support cutting-edge water conservation to curb the threat of fires. Given its small square footage, the cost is expected only to be $125,000 to $150,000 per unit — and that may go down even once more prototypes are on the market.
Advanced emergency response systems
The cornerstone to emergency management is identifying a city’s vulnerable areas and setting up “triage zones” that prioritize aid and medical attention, especially if resources are scarce.
Thanks to advancing technology, decision-makers can better isolate areas of greatest damage to direct their efforts efficiently. Through machine learning, companies like One Concern are able to predict (with impressive accuracy) the timing and severity of a natural disaster. That way, emergency management personnel can take action before, during and after a catastrophe.
One Concern factors in “hyperlocal” data sets of both manmade and natural environments. That means they know a city’s data down to “the smallest rock,” as they put it. From there, they construct a high-resolution model providing minute-by-minute insights on an impending hazard, including a detailed analysis of its potential social and economic effects. The company’s platform offers a detailed plan of action tailored around that specific event and accrues data each time, helping it get even smarter.
Additionally, the integration of patient data and medical records across IoT platforms could help make triage zones more efficient, ensuring proper care is carried out in a timely manner if a natural disaster strikes. Semtech (mentioned above) is behind much of that endeavor. Similar to One Concern, Semtech provides in-depth analysis of catastrophic events to better predict when they’ll strike.
Quelling the quake
When a fault line slips or ruptures, seismic waves are emitted through the ground, creating an earthquake. Primary waves make the ground shake back and forth. Secondary waves cause it to churn up and down. What’s more, seismic waves need something to pass through — like buildings and city infrastructure.
What if technology could not only predict the magnitude of an earthquake, but also stop it in its tracks? Well, it’s not as big a what-if as you might think — and it’s actually been in the works for a few years already.
You’ve likely heard of shock absorbers on your car’s suspension, which slow the unwanted jolting of an uneven road. This technology has helped make buildings resistant to earthquakes, and now it might help reduce the effects of the earthquake itself.
In 2014, a team of researchers in France set out to test this idea. In a very controlled setting, they drilled holes in the ground — of specific size and spacing — to reflect the vibratory motions of ground movement. What they found was that the intensity of seismic waves dropped significantly in areas where holes were drilled.
To be sure, the experiment was limited to predictable conditions, and what makes earthquakes so unsettling is that they’re inherently unpredictable. Even so, their experiment — and several others like it — demonstrated that seismic dampening is possible with the right technology.
For now, the best emergency management plan means monitoring and preparedness. As environmental models and IoT sensors advance — and with them, predictive modeling — we’ll not only know earlier when a disaster will strike, but also the preciseness of its impact. The result? More saved lives and life going back to normal as quickly as possible.
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