Explosions are exciting. They are heavily featured in our favorite movies and games. Crowds go wild at football games when a live cannon is fired after a score. We give children fireworks to play with on special days throughout the year. In big cities, crowds gather in the 10s of thousands to watch as the city lights millions of dollars on fire in a dramatic fireworks show. U.S. citizens gathered around their televisions to watch the spectacular show of force by America’s Shock and Awe campaign against Iraq. We can’t get enough of things that go BOOM!
On Dec. 25, 2020, Nashville Tennessee awoke to an explosive display of shock and awe that pleased no crowds. The boom was lowered in front of the AT&T building for reasons that elude investigators to this day. We know who did it and how it was done. We just don’t know why, and probably never will.
What we do know is that this unnatural disaster might have been more deadly had it not been for the quick response of emergency personnel. The good news is that the event only cost us a few buildings and vehicles. Other disasters around the world tally their cost in human lives. We mourn the senseless loss of any life and rejoice for the lives saved. We are getting much better at saving lives. Here is some of the tech that is helping us do it:
Robots and Powered Exoskeletons
Immediately after the explosion in Nashville, the priority turned to getting people out of harm’s way, searching for trapped survivors, and finding secondary explosive devices that could cause even more damage. Often, the death toll from such events includes emergency personnel who do this critical post-disaster work.
Today, we can send in surveillance robots and crew members wearing powered exoskeletons. Small, ground-based drones fitted with high-resolution cameras can be sent into a dangerous landscape of rubble and shifting debris, providing real-time data in an environment that might be dangerous or impossible for humans to surveil unaided. These robots can quickly and safely locate survivors and other suspicious devices.
Once survivors are located, a rescuer equipped with a powered exoskeleton can more efficiently lift and clear heavy debris from the scene, making way for the safe extraction of survivors trapped beneath. This is the same technology that can be found in military and industrial settings. With this equipment, law enforcement and disaster response teams can do more than save expenses; they can save lives.
The NASA Finder
No amount of must-have emergency equipment for winter camping will save you in the event of an avalanche, rock slide, earthquake, or sinkhole. That is when something rather more robust is required. Enter the NASA Finder. It is a device that is roughly the size of a suitcase and can detect heartbeats buried beneath 30 ft of rubble and an astonishing 20 ft of concrete.
Necessity is truly the mother of invention. The mother of the NASA Finder was the Nepal quake from 2015. Some of the greatest life-saving technologies were inspired by the world’s worst tragedies.
The SERVAL Project
In like manner, the Haiti earthquake gave birth to the SERVAL project. When traditional communication is lost, something common during disasters, SERVAL enables direct communication between cell phones when no coverage exists. It has been around since 2010. It gives aid workers the opportunity to connect with people affected by the disaster.
As communications tools, cell phones are worthless without coverage. So any technology that gives them the ability to communicate without that coverage is going to save lives. Similarly, cell-based smartwatches can save lives. It is not just a matter of health-monitoring sensors. If you take a fall that renders you unconscious, your watch can literally call emergency services for help and give them your precise location.
Nashville was very fortunate in that the only person killed by the Christmas explosion was the person who set it off. Even that was one senseless death too many. With each disaster, we get better at reducing loss of life with technologies such as inspection robots, powered exoskeletons, the NASA Finder, and the SERVAL project.