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U.Va.'s Applied Research Institute Developing More Robust Communications Platform for First Responders

Original Article | News

As appeared in UVA Today, November 12, 2010

By Zak Richards

When disaster strikes, first responders' communications systems can go awry. Land lines are broken, Internet services are disrupted, and there's frenzied competition for finite radio bandwidths.

A prominent example was the confusion that ensued as disparate groups of first responders attempted to organize rescue efforts after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Similar communications problems affected rescuers after Hurricane Katrina and Chile's major earthquake in February.

The University of Virginia's Applied Research Institute, or ARI, is involved in a research project that aims to solve communications challenges in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters. ARI is part of a team assembled by the defense contractor TASC to further develop the Contingency Information Sharing Mission Support Model communications platform.

The technology, which is being designed to meet the needs of first responders, law enforcement and others, offers voice, video, data or radio communications, regardless of the surrounding environment.

The system uses a combination of satellite connectivity, broadband and wireless access, local area networking, and sensor networking and integration. It can run from its own power sources and offers video surveillance.

It also uses what is known as "radio bridging" technology to clear up the confusion of multiple groups of responders communicating via radio, as was the case in 9/11. In essence, the system receives different radio bands, bundles them and re-relays them in an orderly fashion. It can also connect the radio bands into phone systems or the Internet for more communications options.

Leaders of ARI, which was established this past spring to facilitate U.Va. researchers' work on classified government and proprietary commercial research, consider this an important project for the young organization.

"This project shows ARI's readiness, and capability, to collaborate with industry and government partners on a project of significant benefit to the security and safety of our nation and world," said Alf Weaver, the institute's director and a computer science professor in U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science. "We're proud to show the intelligence community – and the public – the level of sophistication and real-world applications of our work."

The Ginn Group and Blueforce Development Corporation are also collaborating on the project.

One aspect of U.Va. researchers' work will be miniaturizing sensors that measure sound and movement. They will then work to integrate sensors with software applications so communications operators can easily understand the data in the proper context of time and location.

Another challenge for U.Va. engineers will be improving the movement of large quantities of data across a variety of networks. This type of "cross-domain" communication requires that both government-classified data and non-government unclassified data can move efficiently and securely across networks.
"Real-world experiences highlight the necessity to rapidly disseminate essential and potentially lifesaving information to first responders," said Donald Harrison, director of strategic planning for Chantilly-based TASC, which opened an office in the U.Va. Research Park in October. "Hopefully, the U.Va. Engineering School can come up with some innovative solutions."

In September, a Hummer outfitted with a similar form of the communications system pulled onto the front yard of the U.Va. Engineering School's Thornton Hall. At the flip of a switch, a telescoping arm pushed a camera into the sky and an array of monitors powered on. Students attending a career fair and passersby were given demonstrations of the technology.

Bill C. Gragg, senior vice president for operations at the Ginn Group, a company that builds out vehicles with these types of communications systems, explained how they can be used to reestablish communications in areas where the infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed.
He cited the example of last February's earthquake in Chile. When temblors knocked out the region's communications, officials weren't able to evacuate citizens before a tsunami hit the coast.

"A technology like this would be part of the country's emergency evacuation plan," Gragg said. "Within 30 minutes of determining you don't have communications, you could reestablish communications between the capital and various support agencies. This technology can save lives."

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