How the Internet of Things could become a critical part of disaster response

Researchers have concluded that those billions of connected devices could help save lives in the event of disaster, even one that knocks out the Internet

disaster-600x450_2.jpgImage credit: REUTERS/China Daily
The huge network of connected devices could be used to aid communications among first responders after a disaster

When you think of the Internet of Things (IoT), the quickly increasing number of devices in our lives that can connect to the Internet and to each other, you probably think of the ways it can make your life easier. For example, the IoT already allows us to do things like control the thermostats in our homes using an app on our phones. But, aside from the conveniences it can offer, the Internet of Things also has the potential to serve a critical, potentially life saving, role in the event of disaster, natural or otherwise.

That’s the conclusion that a group of researchers from France and German came to in a new paper published by Cornell University’s arXiv titled, “The Role of the Internet of Things in Network Resilience.” It was prompted by the fact that the Internet has become our communications backbone, not just just for the web, but also things like phone calls. In the event of a disaster, power can go out, servers can go down and systems can become overloaded, all of which can affect Internet-based communications. Despite having some redundancy and backup systems in place, it’s unrealistic to expect that we could ever make the Internet truly resistant to any disaster.

While there are workarounds and solutions to problems like power outages and down systems, they usually take time to implement. Yet, it’s during those the first critical minutes and hours right after a disaster happens when communication systems are needed most, to coordinate first responders, share information with the public and to enable affected people to check on loved ones. That’s where, the researchers argue, the Internet of Things can serve an important role.

The IoT is a massive network of devices, estimated to reach 30 billion by 2020, many of which are battery-powered. While they often connect to each other through the Internet, they have the potential to talk directly to each other without it, through standards like Bluetooth. The researchers argue that these devices could create a network with enough bandwidth to allow critical text-based communications in the absence of the Internet and even power. For example, they point out that Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart), could handle 16 10kb email messages or over 1,100 140 byte tweets per second. As the authors wrote:

“...even a low throughput, text-based emergency service would help improving the coordination, speed and efficiency of disaster response, and that the availability of such a service may save lives as a direct consequence.”

In order to use the IoT in such way, however, the study authors point out that are many challenges that would first need to be addressed, such as:

  • Connectivity - Thanks to TCP/IP the Internet is able to overcome the heterogeneity of devices in the current IoT. However, without the Internet, in order to talk directly to each other devices would need to overcome differences in networking hardware (e.g., using different radio frequencies) and (often proprietary) software. They would also need to be able to dynamically respond to the lack of Internet connection, or, as the researchers put it, implement spontaneous wireless networking, which most consumer devices don’t currently do.

  • Prioritization - In case of disaster, systems would need to automatically prioritize data traffic to ensure critical communications take precedence. The authors suggest creating a “disaster mode” for IoT devices to ensure, for example, that first responders have priority. This would be similar to the way that 911 calls from mobile devices currently work even with no SIM card.

  • Acceptance - In order for the IoT to serve such a role in case of emergency, people would need to be OK with letting their devices be used as relays and part of the communications network, which they wouldn’t have control over. The authors note that this is a big hurdle and that legislation would probably be required to make it happen.

Those seem like some big, but not impossible, challenges to overcome. I’m glad to see that someone is at least giving thought to using all of these connected devices for something more useful than, say, advertising. Let’s hope that we eventually get to the point where the IoT becomes a critical part of disaster response.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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