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Surviving tsunamis with Nokia drone networks

The high-tech business is one of the most exciting and innovative areas to work these days. But if you are looking for human interest, it’s sometimes hard to find between the bits and bytes. That’s what has made our partnership with Sendai City extra motivating: the possibility to save lives with some very cool cutting-edge tech.

The smart city project we’ve been working on is to help Sendai City in Japan, become much more resilient to big natural disasters. Sendai is the center of Tohoku Region, and it suffered terrible loss of life, injury and property damage nine years ago when the coastal areas were devastated by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Thefirst project to deliver on this ambition uses drones to help respond to future earthquakes, tsunamis and other public emergencies.

The Tohoku Region has been recognized internationally by the United Nations as a symbol of disaster risk reduction and reconstruction. The unusual strength of the 2011 earthquake, the largest ever experienced in Japan, and the unprecedented height of the tsunami that followed, led to 19,000 deaths, with over 1,000 just in the area around Sendai.

The reasons for such a large loss of life are complex, but one of the issues was communicating with people on the ground who needed to be evacuated. The size of the tsunami was unanticipated. Japan has a long history of these kinds of events, but this one caught them by surprise. Racing outward at nearly 800 km/h from the epicentre of the 9.0–9.1 Mw earthquake, the tsunami reached a height of 10m near Sendai City and travelled as far as 10 km inland.

Surging over walls and barriers designed for previous, smaller tsunamis (there is dramatic footage captured by helicopter on YouTube), both the population and emergency responders found themselves in uncharted territory. Over 100 supposedly safe evacuation sites were overwhelmed by the rushing waters as they travelled as much as 5 km inland. There was very little time to communicate the danger or direct people to new safe zones — only eight to ten minutes in the Sendai area. First responders raced around in cars with speakers trying to warn the population that they needed to treat this as something different, but in many cases, there wasn’t time to give them specific directions or even to monitor what they did.

It was with this recent and painful history in mind that Sendai City and Nokia set out to test whether a Nokia drone network could solve some of these problems. There were three challenges that Sendai City put to the Nokia team. One was to establish a disaster relief capability that could provide real-time information about what is happening across the affected area, even if the public network was down. The second was to devise a means of communicating with people on the ground about the state of the emergency, to offer reassurances or to direct them to safe areas. The third was to monitor the progress of the evacuation and to update the participants with new information and analysis.

The site of the drone tests was one of the main areas of devastation in the Sendai area, the Minami-Gamo wastewater treatment plant (MGWTP), which was rendered inoperable by the tsunami. Nokia deployed a private LTE network near the MGWTP using our plug-and-play digital automation cloud technology.

The Nokia drones were equipped with speakers, HD cameras and thermal cameras. During the simulated disaster, the testers were able to issue a major tsunami warning to evacuees in the coastal areas around the MGWTP through the drone speaker, and monitor the tsunami arrival zone and coastal areas through drone camera images.

They also guided people to evacuation sites using the drones to convey directions, and monitored the movements of evacuees using the drone cameras. The infrared cameras are able to see people in the dark and when visibility is obscured. The test was successful and highlighted how first responders can facilitate disaster prevention and mitigation without risk to the personnel managing the evacuation activities.

One of the technical challenges of the solution is to provide reliable, mission-critical communications for controlling drones over large distances and at speeds of 80–110km/h. The network also has to carry streaming HD video and infrared imaging from drones back to the regional emergency response center and transmit audio traffic to the drone speakers.

We invite you to watch the video on the Sendai City smart city project and download the case study here.

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokiaindustries using #smartcityplatform, #GoAllwhere, #privateLTE, #drones, #publicsafety

Arnaud Legrand

About Arnaud Legrand

Arnaud leads Nokia’s public sector marketing efforts, educating government entities on the advances and benefits of telecommunications to improve the services they deliver to their citizens and businesses. When he’s not studying the latest market trends, you can find him recharging his batteries kite surfing and conquering the waves.

Tweet me at @ArnaudLegrand

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