We depend on electronics for extra-sensory-perception and protection. The need for early warnings increases as we continue to pack people into the most disaster-prone regions of the U.S. and around the globe— along the coasts and on the fault lines of the Pacific Rim. Our densely populated centers are also tempting targets for terrorists.
Boeing recently received a contract from the Department of Homeland Security to build the SBInet, a 700-mile "virtual border fence" using sensors, cameras, and some 300 radar towers. Whether the estimated $2 billion spent will be an effective solution to our security and immigration issues is the subject of some debate, but it is certainly an exciting challenge for electronics designers.
One ingenious system for monitoring water quality combines electronics and live fish in Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. According to the Washington Post, Intelligent Automation's Aquatic Biomonitoring System monitors the vital signs of young bluegills, which are extremely sensitive to toxins or small changes in water quality. These patriotic fish are placed in compartments wired with sensors that monitor their movements and breathing patterns.
SPREADING THE WORD
Such innovative disaster monitoring systems gain greater value if they can be coupled with emergency communications plans that tap into today's always-on cell-phone and Internet connectivity.
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee recently approved the WARN Act to create a network of alert transmissions using the entire communications spectrum: cell phones, BlackBerries, the Internet, television (analog, digital, cable, or satellite), satellite and terrestrial radio, and non-traditional media like sirens and "radio-on-a-stick" warning towers (see the figure).
The goal is a National Alert System that can reach people through whatever device they might be tuned into to provide an alert whether the threat is from a natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack. The WARN act builds on work by groups like the Cellular Emergency Alert Systems Association (CEASA), the Internet Society and its Public Warning Network Challenge, and the Emergency Interoperability Consortium (EIC).
The EIC promotes the development and adoption of standards for Web services, XML, and other existing standards. It recently worked with the Department of Homeland Security to demonstrate the Common Alerting Protocol, an open OASIS Standard for the exchange of emergency alerts and public warning over data networks.
In response to the WARN act, CEASA praised the Emergency Broadcast System update but warned against bureaucratic foot-dragging. CEASA says other countries already have successfully implemented"control channels" on existing phones to create systems that localize alerts without overloading networks.
TUNING IN YOURSELF
As Ron Schneiderman points out in "Anticipating 'The Big One'" (p. 35), if you don't want to risk the wait for the government's warning system, you can sign up today for My-Cast. This mobile weather service from Digital Cyclone lets cell-phone users track tropical storms and hurricanes in real time. Ron takes a fascinating look at some sophisticated new radar and weather monitoring systems that can greatly enhance our ability to forecast storms.
As we depend more on satellite-based communications, Ron also notes that we're more vulnerable to a new concern— space weather, the solar disturbances in Earth's environment. A National Space Weather Program now focuses on measuring solar X-rays and on avoiding these disturbances.
The vulnerability of a centralized communications infrastructure, Ron adds, reinforces the value of ham radio operators, the communications heroes of last year's devastating hurricane season. Amateur radio doesn't depend on the infrastructure, so it will continue to play a vital role in emergency response. Early warning is great, but we also need systems that work during a disaster, and none are as well proven as the Amateur Radio Relay League.