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Imaging Science Grad Student Responds to Disaster Needs
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A disaster, such as the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck Japan this spring, can happen at any time and assessing damage proves difficult even when using aerial photography. Given the need to respond quickly when natural or man-made disasters occur, Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science (CIS) graduate student Richard Labiak is developing a simple and quick tool that will supply emergency crews with rapid damage assessment within hours after a catastrophic event.

Jul. 19, 2011
Amy Mednick

Just days after Haiti experienced a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, scientists from CIS’s Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory flew over the severely damaged Port-au-Prince region in a small plane equipped with a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor.  These types of airborne laser scanners are able to collect high resolution, three-dimensional scans rapidly over large areas. The instrument, which sends out light pulses that hit a target and bounce back at up to 150,000 times a second, is often used for surveying and mapping of elevations. To assess damage without this technology, emergency crews rely on high-resolution photos taken from airplanes. This is a painstaking process that does not always accurately account for building heights and is limited by poor illumination or clouds and smoke.

When Labiak saw the LiDAR images, he realized he’d found an enormous, real-world opportunity to create an “interesting and relevant” master’s thesis using the DIRS’ dataset. 

Labiak envisions that while flying above a disaster scene, scientists would collect the LiDAR data and then his processing tool would use the data to produce a damage assessment map for disaster management workers.  “The ultimate goal is that an emergency will happen, we acquire airborne data, and then within a few hours, we are able to extract the relevant information, map it, and get it to people on the ground to show what is damaged and what is not,” says Labiak, who works with CIS Professor Jan van Aardt.


(click images to enlarge in new window)

This year Labiak discovered the less romantic side of scientific research as he spent hours analyzing data that combined high resolution Wildfire Airborne Sensor Program imagery collected simultaneously with LiDAR data. The grueling process of attempting to discern buildings from vegetation in one small section around Haiti’s National Palace, however, paid off. Labiak has come up with an important and useful tool that can provide a building map as well as an initial damage assessment. He presented his findings at the International Society for Optics and Photonics: Defense Security and Sensing Conference in April.

So far, the tool still requires a person to manipulate the data. “The tool is designed to be used in an operational setting, and hopefully will be helpful to disaster managers,” he says. “Eventually, the idea is to get it done pretty quickly and with as little human involvement as possible.”

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