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How NASA, Cisco, And A Tricked-Out Planetary Skin Could Make The World A Safer Place

The Earth’s largest sensor network has evolved and now utilizes a space-to-mud-to-ocean sensing system to help protect Brazil from disasters of all kinds. Could it work across the globe?

It’s 2011 in Brazil.

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Following a series of mega landslides in the country that resulted in 1,000 deaths, Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, tasked Dr. Carlos Nobre, the country’s top technologist and a science advisor to the UN, with creating a national monitoring and early warning system for natural disasters that would help the president proactively manage potential disasters. Dr. Nobre, in turn, made a life-saving call to Planetary Skin Institute.

Sensing Change

In late 2008, Cisco and NASA co-developed a vision for a global network of sensors that would analyze virtually everything happening on the planet. It launched in 2009 as Planetary Skin–one of the largest wireless sensor network deployments ever. It was called one of Time magazine’s best innovations of 2009.

What started as a research collaboration has turned into an independent nonprofit that acts as a bridge between emerging market governments, space agencies around the world, and academic research institutions to make the Internet of Things real–and use it to help governments predict areas of food shortages caused by droughts; identify and shape how city infrastructure should grow; and create landslide alerts by predicting weather patterns.

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Saving Bazil

Institute CEO, Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, says that from Dr. Nobre’s call a valuable partnership was formed.

“He contacted us, nicely, to support him in his efforts, and we’ve been very close partners in co-developing the capabilities and the technologies,” says Castilla-Rubio. “Our work has incorporated NASA, the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University, and 20 research and development institutions in Brazil in order to provide–for the first time ever in an emerging country context–a national monitoring and early warning capability.”

Insect Infestation Detection

The collaborative team has created a system that takes dispersed real-time data from Brazilian, Indian, and U.S. space satellites, on the ground sensors, underground sensors, 5,000 automated weather stations–and uses supercomputers and algorithms to turn this data into a round-the-clock alert system. This system scans and reports back on what’s happening across all 3.2 million square miles of Brazil.

This gives Castilla-Rubio and his team “the ability to predict disasters such as floods in real time.” Castilla-Rubio also says that the system has a forecast view of what might occur in terms of any number of hazards–“floods, landslides, hail, frost, drought events, and the combination thereof.”

“This is a framework that Brazil has at very high resolution for very high-level decision making purposes,” says Castillia-Rubio. “Whether they’re looking at where to put a road network or where to put an energy generation capacity in the country, knowing the history of risk and the forecasted risk in a particular location is important.”

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Knowing about potential disasters, Institute COO Teji Abraham says, will eventually enable the government to issue early warning alerts even on a block-by-block basis by sending “SMS messaging to the people at risk many many hours, in some cases, before the actual events hit.”

According to Castilla-Rubio, this not only saves lives, but it also gives risk management capabilities to governments and people in emerging markets, and to businesses operating on the ground. “The infrastructure guys need it, the energy guys need it, the water guys need it. Everyone needs to have input of the best-in-class available risk management expertise.”

One notable example of these risk management and prevention tools: new virtual weather stations currently being tested by Planetary Skin Institute and their partners.

In a breakthrough in environmental sensing and a new way to use junk data, the team uses “exhaust data” from cell phone towers to predict weather conditions by monitoring the speed of radio waves as they travel through humid air. This allows sensing of local environmental conditions anywhere there are cell towers–places that rarely have weather monitoring right now because traditional weather stations are too costly or the locations are too remote. It sounds simple, but it is critically important. Tracking the weather allows data scientists to connect that with all sorts of other information and, most immediately, to predict things like landslides. And to do so for people who live in the areas nearest the towers–typically shantytowns where populations are at greatest risk.

The project in Brazil has been running successfully for two years. If it continues to work, it is a risk management approach and toolkit that Planetary Skin Institute is planning to bring to the rest of the world–the next step in their evolution.

“That,” Castilla-Rubio says, “is the journey that we are executing at the moment.”

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Brazil Rural Growth Map 2011

Beyond Brazil

In countries in the rest of the world, Castilla-Rubio says, there are either single-risk early warning systems, like the tsunami early warning system in the Pacific, or nothing at all. “No country has a multi-hazard, multi-risk situational awareness monitoring and early warning system for all forces of natural disasters which is proactive enough not only to remove people in harm, but also to enables people to plan better for resilient infrastructure.”

To meet these needs, Institute COO Abraham says he will continue to focus on helping other emerging market countries build similar risk management platforms. And they will do so by bringing together experts, researchers, and data scientists from across the world.

“If we’re able to bridge and to interconnect across peoples of different disciplines, different sectors, different geographies, then we’ll be able to solve this,” Abraham says. “Technology definitely plays a role, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.

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