RAPID reconnaissance: Capturing data in the aftermath of a disaster, S11E6

s11 e6


After a major disaster, hidden amid the rubble and debris are precious clues about the extreme forces structures were subjected to, and exactly what caused them to fail. How can researchers collect this perishable data before it’s swept away? Michael Olsen, professor of geomatics and technical director of the NHERI RAPID Facility, talks about a major effort to get crucial technology into the hands of reconnaissance experts quickly, wherever disaster strikes.

Season number
Season 11
Episode number

KEITH HAUTALA: As an expert in this field, do you have any kind of a sense of what our overall seismic readiness is here in the Willamette Valley?

MICHAEL OLSEN: Well, we do have a lot of work in trying to predict what those damages might look like. And they do look like widespread. It isn't as doom and gloom as I think it kind of gets made out to be sometimes in the media, but we do expect quite a bit of damage.

[MUSIC: “Massive Attack” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

HAUTALA: That's Michael Olsen, a professor of geomatics and civil engineering. He does natural disaster reconnaissance with the ultimate goal of making us better prepared for an earthquake or any kind of natural disaster. 

OLSEN: One thing I think that that really helps Oregon in this case is our populations, aside from the Portland area, you know, we're pretty spread out throughout the state. And so, a lot of the natural disasters, like the Cascadia subduction zone, those will affect a certain portion of the state, but the other portion of this state is not going to be as affected as much. And so, we'll be able to kind of use those resources within the state to, to help with the response. 

HAUTALA: I'm your host, Keith Hautala. In this episode, we'll hear from Michael about: What clues can major disasters provide to help us build back better? And how can we capture that critical data, before it all disappears? 

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, licensed under CC by 3.0.] 

HAUTALA: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is “Engineering Out Loud.”

OLSEN: So, after a natural hazard event, you’ve got structures that are damaged. You’ve got infrastructure, bridges, that are destroyed or significantly damaged. And, as part of the recovery process, communities need to go and basically either tear down these or institute a series of repairs to restore it, so people can get back with their lives. And, so kind of the goal in reconnaissance from the engineering perspective, and to get the forensic information, is to kind of time the surveys that you go out and collect data, kind of in between the time where the major, initial, life-safety recovery happens. You know, we don’t want to be there interfering with those activities. But if you get there too late, those repairs have happened, and you’ve lost that information that is very valuable for the engineering community to understand: How did our infrastructure respond to these natural hazards? What sorts of damages did we see? Did our design codes work properly? And really record that information, so that in the end we can design better buildings moving forward.

HAUTALA: In addition to being a professor here at Oregon State, Michael is the technical director for the RAPID facility.

OLSEN: The RAPID facility is really a conglomerate of the University of Washington, Oregon State University, Florida, as well as Virginia Tech and a group of researchers that have come together to kind of build up this facility from scratch. And the main mission of the RAPID facility is to assist researchers collecting perishable data after natural hazard events. 

[MUSIC: “Action” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

HAUTALA: The RAPID facility is housed at University of Washington and funded by the National Science Foundation, providing investigators with equipment, software, and support services to collect and analyze data. It is part of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure, or NHERI network, which focuses on wind hazards — like hurricanes, tornadoes, storm surges — as well as seismic events, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and seismic-induced landslides. The RAPID facility is geared toward responding to those kinds of events as well as a broader range of natural hazards. One of its first tasks was to bring together the research community and figure out just what investigators needed in order to work together more effectively.

OLSEN: First year of the RAPID facility was really to kind of develop the vision and get the community input as far as what would be useful for them. So, we held a series of workshops. One focused on kind of getting the natural hazards community integrated together across the different disciplines. Traditionally reconnaissance would be: One group would go out and collect their information, and another group would go out and collect some other information, and there’s really rarely those connections between them. And so, early on in the RAPID, after the RAPID was formed, we hosted a workshop where we invited experts across the country, got them together to kind of talk about some of these issues. 

And so, from that we kind of work with those communities to understand: What do you need? What can we do to support you in the reconnaissance? So that we’re not just duplicating things with a bunch of smaller groups. Logistically, that’s challenging after major events, but it also helps, to, to kind of have these shared resources, so they can get access to equipment very quickly. You know, that’s always the problem. Traditionally, before that, reconnaissance people would snap some photos, they would, you know, write down some field notes, and so on. But that was primarily the extent. 

[MUSIC: “Action” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com] 

And kind of the goal of the facility was really to build in more technology into that process — 3D laser scanning, unmanned aircraft systems, and other technologies like that. So, they could develop really good maps, with high-quality data that could be used by a lot of different researchers.

HAUTALA: One of the RAPID facility’s major charges is to get these experts trained in the use of new, state-of-the art technology. The kinds of tools available to researchers in this field, and the capabilities of that equipment have expanded far beyond what anyone could have even imagined 20 years ago. 

OLSEN: So, things have advanced very quickly with certain things in particular — I’ll use laser scanning technology, but you can also look at drones and what’s capable with that. So, back in 2000, you know, that’s kind of about the time the first commercial terrestrial laser scan units were on the market. There were some airborne systems that were available. But commercially, that’s kind of when they started coming into being. There you’d see maybe 2,000 to 4,000 points per second was the acquisition rate. And, you know, at the time it’s like, this is screaming, right?  Compared to somebody manually holding a rod over a point, you know, you’re collecting data pretty quick. But it’s grown exponentially. So, in about 2017 is when the scanner was launched that was able to do 2 million points per second. 

HAUTALA: Back in the dark ages of, say, the 1990s, reconnaissance work meant spending a lot of time in the field to gather a relatively small amount of data that could then be analyzed fairly quickly. But technology has flipped that equation on its head, so to speak. 

OLSEN: You would spend weeks collecting all the measurements, but it was just a handful of measurements that you could collect, right? And now it’s the opposite, you know, for one day in the field, it could be, you know, a few days of processing. And it, you know, it depends on what information you need, and how detailed do you need it. Because, you know, you can process one data set in a couple hours and get some basic things you want out of it, or you can interrogate it for the rest of your life and get, you know, a whole ton of stuff out of it. But, you know, typically that’s kind of the balance is you’re expecting a few days of office processing, you know, for every day of collection that you’re doing. 

HAUTALA: This community of researchers — from across different disciplines, at different institutions in different parts of the world — need some basic training to learn not only how to use this advanced technology, but also how to process and analyze the huge volumes of data they can collect with it. 

[MUSIC: “Massive Attack” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

OLSEN: So, we host a four-day workshop every summer, basically a bootcamp in using these different systems to get people up to speed, so that when they’re ready to deploy, they’re very comfortable with using those systems. And then after, you know, when it’s time for deployment, we help them get the equipment to where it needs to go. We help them with logistics, as far as connecting with other researchers that are responding, and then afterwards kind of help them through the process of knowing what they can do with their data, and connecting with other researchers that were also involved in the deployment.

HAUTALA: The RAPID facility maintains a collection of equipment available to users of the facility, including the terrestrial laser scanners Michael was talking about a couple of minutes ago. 

OLSEN: So, these are devices that you can go out and map an area very quickly and efficiently. It sends out laser pulses. And from that it can get X, Y, Z coordinates. The fastest scanners can do that at 2 million points per second. So, you get a very detailed 3D model that almost feels like you’re there, present on the scene. So, as a researcher, or an investigator out in the field doing a forensic investigation, you don’t have to pull a tape or get calipers out to measure everything. You can run this device and capture those measurements very efficiently and see them at high detail, you know, down to a few millimeters to a centimeter accuracy, depending on how large of an area you’re mapping. 

You can see every dandelion on the landscape! So very, very big detail. So, you’ve got those kinds of devices. And those range from ones that are geared towards mapping inside a structure or a house, and kind of localized to a short-range mapping, to scanners that can scan up to two kilometers away for landscape-type scales. 

HAUTALA: The facility also maintains a fleet of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, which can be paired with digital cameras or laser scanning equipment and used for mapping purposes. 

OLSEN: And so, those range from very small, kind of portable, backpack-type systems, you know, up to very large systems that you can put very large payloads on. So, talking digital cameras, we have a multispectral camera as well that people can take out and use with it. And then probably the crown jewel in that collection is our LIDAR drone. And so, instead of moving a tripod along to do your laser scanning, we can fly this LIDAR drone and capture a lot of information quickly with that. 

We also have a wide range of geotech investigation equipment, like seismometers, shear-wave velocity measurements that basically measure what the ground condition and how waves propagate through the soil. And then that gives us an idea of what the condition of the ground is below. Accelerometers to measure structures as they vibrate. We have different types of wind sensors. We’ve got an autonomous boat system with a sonar system to basically map bathymetry below the water surface.

And then we also have kind of smaller things that maybe aren’t necessarily the big-ticket items, but very helpful for researchers, in terms of, like, camera stabilization systems. So, they can walk through with a camera and, you know, be recording data as they walk through a scene, but not have to worry about keeping the camera steady or, you know, what they’re doing. They can just hold it in their hand and it keeps the camera steady.

[MUSIC: “Massive Attack” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

HAUTALA: Users of the RAPID facility have access to all of this equipment, in exchange for a very modest user fee, and the facility provides the training free of charge. 

OLSEN: So, if you go to the RAPID website, there’s a map there that shows all the different deployments and what particular equipment was used and what those investigations were. And it covers the globe. You know, there’s been rapid responses to Indonesia after the earthquakes and the big landslides triggered from the earthquakes there. Japan, Italy. There’s been in Greece recently. There’s been in New Zealand, as I mentioned previously. So, the RAPID facility itself, though, doesn’t necessarily always deploy unless a researcher needs our staff there, and our goal is to facilitate the researchers, not be the ones to make the decision of this is an event we should respond to, or not. So, we’re there in kind of that assistance role but, you know, really letting the community drive which are the events to respond to. 

HAUTALA: I asked Michael to reflect on the first five years of the RAPID facility, and what has been accomplished so far. 

OLSEN: You know, the first year was to really understand what the user community needed. The second year was to buy and to procure the equipment, and get it set up and ready to use. And then years three, four, and five were deployments. And pretty much we had people knocking on our door before we were even open for business, so to speak, to be able to use the equipment.

But I think one of the most exciting things is how it’s been able to open the doors for more interdisciplinary research. And so, really connecting these different communities is one of the things that kind of came out of the RAPID facility. 

The other part, too, that’s really exciting in that is that the RAPID’s opened the doors for a lot of investigators to do things that they couldn’t do previously. Most are at universities, right? And budgets at the universities are tight. They don’t have access to a lot of equipment. And so, this opens the doors that, you know, for very, very minimal rental charges, they’re able to get access to the equipment that they need. They get training. They’re able to go out and use this equipment and collect data that can then feed their research projects and take them into some new directions in terms of their research.
The RAPID has kind of opened some doors in, is the diversity of the response community. So early on, you know, prior to the RAPID, a lot of reconnaissance, you know, as hard as you try it tended to be the same people going out to different events, right? There’s a couple of people in the community that operated laser scanners, and they were on the speed dial for, OK, we need you out here. Right? And one of my good friends Rob Cann, you know, he’s out across the globe and, you know, just spending months at a time collecting data, right? And doesn’t get a break.

And so, it’s opened the doors for a lot of newer researchers, researchers from diverse backgrounds to get this training and get access to the technology that’s kind of helped them, you know, not only advance their careers, but also advance their knowledge and the research, and bring these different perspectives to the community instead of the same people going out, looking for the same things all the time.

[MUSIC: “Action” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

HAUTALA: This fall, the RAPID facility had its funding renewed, with an additional $5 million in support from the NSF. 

OLSEN: So over the next five years, there’s a lot of different activities with the RAPID facility. So one of them is to be able to advance the data processing activities of the RAPID facility. And so, really helping researchers get more out of their data. But really, get them to figure out better ways to share the data and connect as a community through the data. And so, you know, I think right now in reconnaissance, a lot of people wouldn’t, you know, meet together each night, copy data on flash drives and so on, and then all kind of go back and go their separate ways. And so, we’re trying to find ways that, through the data, different researchers can connect, not only those that are directly involved in the reconnaissance, but others can go through and virtually explore that data and add their input, you know, tag features in the data and add those observations and kind of connect those processes together. 
You know, the other part with the RAPID facility is, you know, obviously natural disasters are not going away anytime soon, and we’re just seeing them escalate more and more. And so, you know, being able to be in a position that we can help researchers respond, have the equipment and supplies that they need. It’s something very important that we’re looking forward to building with that. 

[MUSIC: “Massive Attack” by Podington Bear, soundofpicture.com]

So we want data reuse, we want connections across the community. We want to see that grow. And we’re also looking at ways that we can kind of build up this diverse community of responders. And so, we’re looking at different avenues that we can connect with different entities and get researchers trained that have been overlooked in the past. 

HAUTALA: This episode was produced by me, Keith Hautala, with support from Rachel Robertson and audio recording and editing by Will Havnaer. Our intro music, as always, is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio. You can find them on SoundCloud, and we used their song here with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution License. Other music and sound effects in this episode were also used with the appropriate licenses. For more episodes, bonus content, and links to the licenses, visit engineeringoutloud.oregonstate.edu. Subscribe to this podcast by searching for “Engineering Out Loud” on Spotify or your favorite podcast app.

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