by Gregory P. Nichols, MPH, CPH
Mr. Nichols is the Program Manager for Nanotechnology Studies at ORAU in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and has experience in epidemiology, environmental health, and disaster response. He has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Tennessee and holds the Certified in Public Health credential.
Summary: A variety of emerging technologies can be utilized to improve community resilience and minimize the impact of disasters.
Ten years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina seems to be an appropriate time to discuss the future of disaster preparedness and how communities can become more resilient. Resilience minimizes vulnerability (Ministers Responsible for Emergency Management 2011, p. 8). The greater a community has the capacity to reduce vulnerability, the greater the likelihood of surviving a catastrophe. Unfortunately, the adoption of new technologies in the practice of public health is often slow, and research typically does not always focus on the feasibility of implementing new technologies to improve the efficiency of public health practice. There are numerous emerging technologies that could be used to reduce vulnerability and improve disaster preparedness and response, but three technologies stand out as being extremely relevant for building community resilience.
Nanotechnology is the creation of particles on the nanoscale. The nanoscale involves matter ranging in size from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm). A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To put this into perspective, a common type of nanomaterial is a carbon nanotube, which measures 1 nm in diameter, whereas the width of a human hair is 80,000 nm. Over 2,000 different types of these particles exist, and many of them have highly prized properties that make them useful for a variety of applications. One of the highly touted uses for nanomaterials is as sensors (called nanosensors).
Nanosensors have the potential to detect a variety of threats, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threats (CBRNE) (Koedrith and Thasiphus, 2015). In addition, nanosensors can detect tiny changes in pressure and movement, thus they would be ideal to use in monitoring critical infrastructure such as bridges, dams, and tunnels. Early detection of unusual stress or strain could be investigated immediately and potentially prevent catastrophic failure. Nanosensors could also be attached to goods so they could be tracked during transport and monitored for safety (i.e., detect tampering, suspected terrorist attack, etc.). Transportation routes, such as railroads and rail cars, could be monitored for suspicious activity to prevent tragedies such as the Lac-Megantic rail disaster in 2013, which killed 47 individuals and created a one-kilometer (0.62 mi.) blast radius. Nanotechnology is also being used to develop alternative energy sources, improve battery technologies, and create next-generation photovoltaic cells used for solar power. Energy technologies that could be used off the grid would obviously provide a significant advantage for recovery efforts.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of sensors and data communications technology built into physical objects that enable those objects to be tracked and controlled across a data network or the internet (McKinsey& Company2013, p. 53). These objects can be bridges and dams as mentioned above, or they could be battery-powered and mobile devices. Many of these objects already have the capacity to connect with each other using radio networks and are not connected with the power grid. They could also be used as a communications network in a power-outage, and it has been suggested that the IoT could become a default architecture during a disaster (Petersen and Baccelli, 2014).
Aside from acting as a blackout network, data could be collected from the sensors of various devices, stored, and analyzed in real-time on a cloud platform, such as in the case of nano sensors used to monitor surrounding areas for potential chemical or biological releases. This information would be constantly transmitted back to a central area and evaluated. Anomalies even at small scales would potentially be detected and could lead to quicker investigation and even evacuation if necessary.
The World Economic Forum named 3-D printing one of the top 10 emerging technologies for 2013 (World Economic Forum 2013). This technology is a type of additive manufacturing in which a product is built from the bottom up using small pellets of polymer composite materials or fine metal powders. A design of the product is created using software and downloaded into a special machine that acts as a giant printer. The polymer or metal powder is sprayed into the machine one layer at a time. This process is repeated until the final product has been created. Printing an object like this is much faster than typical manufacturing processes. Less material is used, which reduces waste, and products can be created on demand in the area of need and do not have to be shipped from distant manufacturing plants.
A variety of products (e.g., tools, medical supplies, and materials for shelters) that would be needed by first responders and affected individuals following a disaster could easily be created by a 3-D printer. Printers with pre-downloaded plans for a variety of objects could be staged at pre-selected sites along with the materials needed to print them. This would reduce the amount of space needed to store supplies, it would reduce waste by creating a significant amount of resources on an as-needed basis, and it would eliminate waiting time for certain critical resources. 3-D printers can also be used to make selected parts for equipment in isolated areas used to detect and track potential natural disasters, such as storms (USAID, 2015). Having the availability to print resources on demand could be a game-changer in remote areas that have limited infrastructure.
A variety of technologies are rapidly emerging as significant players in changing the way communities face disaster leading to a reduction in vulnerability and improving their capacity to prepare for, respond to, and endure catastrophic events. An initial wave of technologies such as social media, SMS, and GIS helped pave the way for better disaster response, and now it is time to capitalize on a new generation of technologies. Technological research and development needs to be better matched with opportunities, and public health professionals need to take better advantage of addressing issues utilizing emerging technologies. The future of vulnerability reduction is here, and it is time to act.
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4. Petersen, H &Baccelli, E 2014., ‘The role of the internet of things in network resilience’, arXiv:1406.6614v1. [25 June 2014].
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6. USAID 2015,How 3D Printing Can Help Save Lives. Available from: https://blog.usaid.gov/2015/03/how-3d-printing-can-help-save-lives/. [16 March 2015].