The drone buzzed over the rows of people watching from the ground, their necks craning to keep sight of the machine, no bigger than a brick and less than a pound.
A screen at the front of the room showed footage of the top of their heads from the drone’s camera while Ricky Stuart, the U.S. Southern Command’s advanced technology manager, steered it around the room using a remote.
The demonstration was part of Southcom’s display of disaster relief ventures, including portable satellites and mapping capabilities that would make communication possible in the case of network outages.
“It’s extremely important to get information to people who need it in the case of a disaster,” said Juan Hurtado, command science and technology adviser at Southcom, the Doral campus where military planners coordinate U.S. activities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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For example, troops could use the drone, which comes equipped with a video camera, to assess a disaster, then make an informed decision about how to approach the damage.
Southcom showed off an all-in-one website — the All Partners Access Network, or APAN — which serves as a point of communication between the Department of Defense and civilians. Similar to social media, anyone can make an account and post in the forums and chats, which becomes especially useful when aid workers are trying to connect with people in need during disasters, like the 2010 Haiti earthquake or hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
Disaster victims can also check mapping software called GeoSHAPE, which they can use to publish requests for help and information on incidents, such as floods or traffic issues.
But many disasters knock out cellphone towers and kill Internet connections, adding another level of complexity in communication. Another mapping application known as Content-Oriented Mobile Edge Technology, or COMET, makes it possible to form a wireless network between cellphones without cellular service.
Engineers from the University of Southern California, which developed the technology, used the hypothetical Hurricane Bellatrix as a disaster example. In the demonstration, the Category 5 hurricane hit the Tampa Bay area and knocked out cellphone reception. With COMET’s mobile phone application, called GeoBrowser, users can publish the locations of medical emergencies, floods, hospitals, downed trees and documents within a certain radius onto a map. When others enter the radius, their maps automatically update to reflect the changing landscape.
Users can set a time limit for each report, which would be useful if, say, the Red Cross set up a mobile clinic to help victims of Hurricane Bellatrix. The only catch — residents of a disaster-stricken area can only use the app if they downloaded it before the disaster struck. Te app is available for Android smartphones and tablets.
The technology can be also used in situations beyond disaster relief, most notably in a country with censored Internet.
“It’s making sure you’re able to work in a disconnected environment,” said Christine Zhang, the USC engineer who oversaw the project.
Other partners rolled out more tangible methods in establishing connections in a disconnected area.
One, the CommCube, contains a satellite terminal, a Wi-Fi router and batteries all stored in a portable box that weighs about 35 pounds. The inflatable Ground Antenna Transmit and Receive satellite communication system provides bandwidth when it’s inflated and can fit in a suitcase when it’s not. And, when implemented, the SMDC Nanosatellite Program will allow first responders to communicate with tactical radios via nanosatellites about a foot tall. Each satellite is more affordable than a traditional rigid satellite, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The display also included a portable solar powered water purifying system that can provide clean water for up to 450 people and a real time language translator about the size of a walkie-talkie with data stored in the hardware rather than on the Internet.
Additionally, Southcom partnered with Florida International University to form the Western Hemisphere Information Exchange, which helps to form a renewable energy plan for a country. So far, the exchange has forged ahead on half a dozen projects, including technology that can produce electricity from coconut shells in El Salvador and mobile medical clinic powered from wind, sunlight and biofuels in the Dominican Republic.
At the end of the presentation, Stuart pulled out the drone again. It flew lower and lower right into the palm of Rear Adm. Scott Jerabek’s hand as bystanders clapped and took pictures.
“Perfect landing,” one of them said.