To make a difference, EarthData envisioned melding existing mapping, downlink, and communications technologies into one system that would dramatically reduce the total time from system deployment through data collection and final data delivery. At Ground Zero, mountains of rubble, underground fires and totally unpredictable conditions redirected rescue and recovery operations constantly, confirming that the landmark data-production time of 10 hours alone was far too long to be of maximum utility to the responders. From lessons learned from this national tragedy, EarthData set a goal of developing a mobile system that would deploy to anywhere in the United States within six hours, collect data from multiple sensors simultaneously, then put data in first-responders’ hands within three hours of acquisition - a monumental task.
From Concept to Reality
Through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, Office for Domestic Preparedness, EarthData was able to develop the system to make the dream a reality.
To move ARIES from concept to demonstration, EarthData assembled a team of industry leaders: Raytheon Solipsys to contribute its advanced mobile communications technologies as a ground station; Trex Enterprises to contribute its rapid downlink technologies; and EarthData to contribute the system foundation in the forms of its rapid-response experiences, program management, suite of airborne sensors, fleet of aircraft, and mapping technologies. With an immediate goal of three hour data production and a vision of near-real-time data delivery, the team designed ARIES to consist of five primary components:
- The airborne component includes the aircraft and sensors necessary to support emergency response, plus the onboard data recorders, positional data equipment and downlink antenna system.
- The ground component enables multiple-station image processing and dissemination in an all-terrain configuration that has self-contained power and air conditioning, large-screen displays, and multiple data sources for crisis management applications.
- The datalink component consists of an ultra-high-speed millimeter-wave wireless air-to-ground communications link between the sensor aircraft and the ground component and has the tracking capability required to maintain these links for the required downlink periods. The datalink currently operates at a 1.2 gigabit-per-second transfer rate at a range of approximately 10 kilometers.
- The storage and exploitation component uses a commercial off-the-shelf-based (COTS–based) system for rapid image processing, orientation and orthorectification. Portable workstations process raw data from multiple sensor types rapidly and efficiently into the required products.
- The dissemination component gets geospatial products into the hands of first-responders, situation commanders and decision-makers and is designed to provide interoperability with federal gateways such as the Geospatial One-Stop as well as other federal, regional and state systems.
The Picatinny Demo – Proving the Concept
On Nov. 17, 2004 , Phase 1 culminated successfully in a live system demonstration at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. The demonstration simulated a full-scale mission to collect data over the entire arsenal (approximately a 15-square-mile site) during a seven-flight-line 1-hour collection with digital camera, LiDAR and thermal sensors recording simultaneously. Following collection, the plane orbited the arsenal at an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet about six kilometers from the site. The datalink system automatically located the aircraft, and a link established a 1.2 gigabit-per-second transfer of the five gigabytes of data directly from the aircraft into the central storage system within the ARIES ground shelter.
The ARIES communications tower, seen in the foreground, supports direct Internet connectivity, wireless networking, radio communications and satellite broadcast reception. Designed as a portable capability, all ARIES communication gear travels with the ground station and can be assembled instantly. The ARIES ground component, or production and communications center, can be seen in the background.
The LiDAR data was processed within 1.5 hours; the resulting 2.5-meter digital elevation model was used to create an orthorectified mosaic with 50-centimeter ground sampling distance in approximately 45 minutes. Concurrently, the thermal data was processed as an overlay layer to match the LiDAR and optical outputs. As soon as it was produced, the data was published via internet, wirelessly, and placed in a real-time visualization environment with tracking capability.
As the demonstration concluded, the ARIES connection was tested at the Picatinny Arsenal’s emergency operations center to ensure data flow to a command and control element. Several more steps are under way to assess the data integrity as the data rolls from ARIES into the decision-making matrix for all responders.
Deploying within 12 hours, then bringing response time to three hours versus 10 was incredible, and the team hopes to further save critical time by deploying within six hours and bringing response time to 1.5 hours.
Geospatial Data in Emergencies
While ARIES was conceived in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, it is not solely a terrorist response system. Quite the contrary, natural disasters occur multiple times per year, so ARIES’ greatest contribution will be in response to hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, fires and the like. ARIES can create a foundation for applications such as mapping corridors for rebuilding transportation infrastructure; monitoring changes of subsidence in rubble, or of collapsing structures; locating underground fires; imaging the degree and areas of destruction along tornado paths; planning evacuation and supply routes for areas threatened by hurricanes; and recording path shifts and resultant life and property threats of wildfires, to name a few. In all environments, near-real-time geospatial data and real-time communications amid rapidly changing and unpredictable conditions contribute to responders’ safety and recovery efforts. ARIES is designed to deploy quickly and to function continually until crises are past . In this context, ARIES’ potential speaks to lives instead of statistics.
Only the Beginning
ARIES must evolve with new technologies and changing needs if it is to fulfill the vision of serving citizens and responders during national and international emergencies. The ARIES partners are committed to maintaining that state of preparedness. Possible Phase 2 system improvements include a downlink pod that can snap onto aircraft to increase options for aerial platforms and capacity, and for customized software and hardware that will expand interoperability. Increasing options reduces bottlenecks and obstacles caused by incompatibility among components, thus also significantly speeding total system function. Phases 3 and 4 will involve nationwide implementation, training, system upgrades, processes, and procedures to sustain the system into the future.
|The ARIES air component collects color digital imagery, LiDAR, and thermal data and sends the data over a 1-gigabit-per-second direct downlink to the ARIES mobile ground processing center.|
Beyond engineering enhancements, the vision for ARIES is to provide a nationwide system in which the United States would be divided into “joint task force regions” based on the current federal regional configuration used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Each region would be assigned at least one commercially owned and operated aircraft fitted with appropriate sensors and download capability and with one or more ARIES mobile ground stations.
During non-crisis times, the regional aircraft and sensors would work on normal commercial airborne remote sensing projects, as presently is the case. In addition, these private-sector airborne assets could be contracted to collect more up-to-date data in strategic or vulnerable geographic areas as mutually agreed upon among the federal, state and local government agencies. In the event of a disaster, the rapid response data collection aircraft would be deployed to the site.
Not even sophisticated disaster prevention plans lessen the need for timely information presented in an easy-to-use format, and the quicker the response, the more likely lives would be saved, property damage would be accurately assessed and recovery actions would proceed with accurate information. ARIES responds to these requirements with mobile, on-site geospatial data processing centers capable of integrating “before” and “after” data to create multiple tiers of products with related analyses. These products range from near-real-time lower-accuracy high-resolution maps to those of extremely high accuracy, which are also high resolution. As described, this model also would employ a web-based database to enable first-responders to interrogate the data and make requests or advise other responders even from thousands of miles away.
Unfortunately, disasters, whether natural or intentional, are a fact of life. Fortunately, ARIES promises to speed response and to provide detailed near-real-time geospatial data and communications that enable concerted, coordinated effort among data providers, crises responders, situation commanders, and policy decision-makers at domestic and international disaster sites. ARIES may become a national asset to serve citizens and first-responders when they need help the most, and people will no longer be haunted by the vision of a whiteboard as the fastest means to deal with emergencies in real-time.