When a natural disaster hits, loss of power and communications can increase the loss of life as relief coordinators struggle to pinpoint where resources are needed the most.
LinkAiders is creating a revolutionary communications and analytics platform that will enable volunteers and disaster relief coordinators to communicate even when normal channels are unavailable.
Enablesthousands of volunteers to share vital situational information rapidly
20 timesfaster relief planning helps target efforts where they are needed most
Saveslives and makes the best possible use of limited emergency resources
Business challenge story
Natural disasters can strike quickly and with little warning. In the critical 72 hours that follow the event, the survival of entire communities hangs in the balance—and how effectively resources are targeted can make the difference between life and death.
Pernille Skjødt, Co-Founder and Head of Operations at LinkAiders, takes up the story: “As soon as an earthquake, hurricane or typhoon hits, the clock starts counting down, and relief coordinators must take action immediately to save as many lives as they can.
“One of the biggest challenges in relief planning—especially for very serious natural disasters—is the complete disruption of communications and power. For weeks, it is often not possible to communicate with the kinds of remote communities that tend to be most severely affected by catastrophes.”
She continues: “Because coordinators are forced to rely on educated guesses about the situation on the ground, it is practically impossible to ensure that aid gets to all of the people who need it. As well as hindering relief efforts, communications blackouts lead to large amounts of waste—in some cases as much as 25 percent of the resources available. And crucially, if vulnerable communities don’t get emergency supplies in time, more people can lose their lives.”
To minimize the human cost of natural disasters, LinkAiders decided to take a fresh look at the challenge of communicating with relief volunteers when the normal infrastructure fails.
“Currently, relief coordinators have to collect and analyze information manually as it slowly comes in over the days and weeks after a disaster hits,” continues Skjødt. “It can take as long as two weeks to painstakingly create an accurate situational overview, by which time the critical 72-hour period has long passed. We realized that there was huge potential to save more lives and alleviate suffering if we could help coordinators get accurate information, faster.”
Sharing vital information when communications go dark
LinkAiders designed a revolutionary solution called Reachi, which uses low-cost, wearable communication devices to share simple—but vital—information over a mesh network. Every device in the mesh network acts as relay to a communication gateway, which in turn forwards the data to relief coordinators.
“Reachi began as a university research project, and our partnership with the Danish Red Cross quickly highlighted the value of the solution,” explains Skjødt. “Our contacts at the Danish Red Cross encouraged us to turn the idea into a prototype, and their suggestions about how we could capture, manage and display information played a crucial role in getting the project off the ground.”
Claus Olsen, Head of Disaster Management Department at the Danish Red Cross, says: “We see Reachi as an important effort to put volunteers in affected communities at the center of humanitarian action as engaged participants, not merely recipients of aid.”
Skjødt continues: “We knew that after a disaster, getting answers to a few simple questions could help coordinators save lives. We wanted a way to help local volunteers quickly answer questions such as: ‘Is the evacuation center damaged?’, ‘Can we access the area by roads, bridge or air?’, and ‘How many families require food, medicine and hygiene packages?’.”
Because most cellphones and other traditional communications devices typically run out of power after just one day of moderate use, LinkAiders decided to build a dedicated device that would use a mesh network to communicate—minimizing the power usage and maximizing battery life. This would help to reduce the risk of volunteers’ devices running out of power in the crucial hours and days after a disaster hits.
“We designed a low-power, low-cost wearable device with six buttons and a low power display—enabling volunteers to submit answers to simple, multiple-choice questions,” says Skjødt. “When submitted, the data hops from device to device until it reaches a mobile communications gateway. The gateway is designed for volunteers to wear as a backpack, and currently runs on a Raspberry Pi equipped with Wi-Fi, GSM and satellite transmitters. Cost-per-device was a key consideration, and selecting a pre-configured microcomputer running Linux enabled us to reduce the capital cost of the solution.”
To minimize power consumption and maximize endurance, LinkAiders needed to transmit information as efficiently as possible, and collaborated with specialist Internet of Things (IoT) technology partner NEOCORTEC to use their lean binary communications protocol. As development of the protocol progressed, LinkAiders began exploring the IBM® Watson IoT™ platform on IBM Cloud to help prove the concept in the real world.
“To put Reachi to the test, we needed a scalable, resilient and cost-efficient cloud platform—and the IBM Watson IoT Platform on IBM Cloud came highly recommended by the NEOCORTEC team,” Skjødt recalls.
Working with NEOCORTEC and IBM, LinkAiders designed a proof-of-concept network architecture for the first real-world test of the solution.
“Because our disaster reports do not contain any sound, videos, images or free text, each is only around 100 bytes in size,” says Skjødt. “However, for the solution to be effective in an emergency, we need thousands of volunteers to send data easily, and to ingest, store and analyze the data quickly.”
When a device sends a disaster report to a gateway, an onboard Node-RED connects and sends the report to the IBM Watson IoT platform using MQTT. During the test, LinkAiders decided to push data from the gateways via the IBM Watson IoT Platform to an IBM dashDB® managed service in the cloud
Skjødt adds: “Early on in the process, one of IBM’s developers came to NEOCORTEC’s development lab for a hackathon—a collaborative programming exercise aimed at finding a way to connect all the devices in our mesh network automatically. We couldn’t be happier with the results of our partnership. IBM brought together the skills, the cloud platform and the IoT solutions we needed to take Reachi to the next level.”
Timely information saves lives
Thanks to its collaboration with NEOCORTEC and IBM, LinkAiders successfully tested its groundbreaking Reachi solution with volunteers in the field. With its wearable devices still in development, the company ran the mesh software on functional prototypes.
“We conducted three small-scale tests involving around 150 volunteers in total,” says Skjødt. “Reports from the volunteers were passing from the gateway through the IoT Platform up into dashDB, and from the database into our front-end system. For the purposes of the test, our front-end system was a spreadsheet, but in the production version of the solution it will be a browser-based dashboard.”
Ultimately, LinkAiders’ vision is to have millions of volunteers using Reachi, enabling them to share situational reports with relief coordinators quickly, even when power and communications go dark.
“Today it takes around two weeks to create a full overview of the detailed needs of each area,” comments Skjødt. “If millions of people are using Reachi to share information in real time, we predict that emergency planners will see a detailed overview in less than eight hours, 20 times faster than currently possible. When the solution goes into production, it will help people to prioritize and coordinate relief distribution efforts more accurately and efficiently—getting aid where it’s most needed within the all-important 72-hour window, and helping to save more lives.”
In addition to delivering aid to at-risk communities faster, LinkAiders estimates the Reachi solution will help reduce waste and identify ways to make future emergency responses more effective.
“By enabling coordinators to better understand where resources are needed, we should be able to reduce waste dramatically—enabling organizations to help more people with the same amount of resources,” says Skjødt.
After successfully demonstrating that its mesh network technology can send information when normal communications infrastructure is unavailable, LinkAiders is preparing to take its solution to market.
“In parallel to our work on ruggedizing, testing and certifying the Reachi devices, we will be working closely with relief organizations to build the web front-end of the solution,” Skjødt adds. “Our goal is to overlay the information from our volunteers in real-time on a map of the area—showing at a glance the most seriously affected areas and the status of the transport links to each area.”
She concludes: “All of our work is directed towards one goal: to save as many lives as possible when disasters strike. Our collaboration with NEOCORTEC, the Red Cross and IBM will enable relief coordinators to get emergency help to where it’s needed—fast.”
LinkAiders is a Danish start-up that strives to improve disaster communication by delivering timely, accurate data to relief coordinators. In collaboration with the Danish Red Cross and its technical partner NEOCORTEC, LinkAiders is building a solution called Reachi—a low-cost, wearable communication system that will enable volunteers and disaster relief coordinators to communicate even when normal communications and power systems are unavailable.
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Founded in 2007, NEOCORTEC is leading designer, manufacturer and provider of networking technologies to support internet of things solutions. With expertise in ultra-low-power bi-directional wireless mesh networks, the company is based in Copenhagen, Denmark and Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand. To learn more about NEOCORTEC, please visit: neocortec.com