The United States experienced 22 separate billion-dollar weather disasters in 2020, a record. The following year came in second, with winter storms across Texas and the Deep South; wildfires in California, Arizona, Colorado and other states; numerous severe out-of-season tornadoes; and several tropical cyclones, including Ida, Elsa and Fred.
Compounding these threats is America’s aging critical infrastructure. In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave national infrastructure C and D grades in 16 categories, including power, roads, bridges, dams, levees, drinking water and wastewater.
When a disaster strikes or infrastructure breaks down, people, sometimes entire urban populations, can be at risk of injury, illness or death. A quick and coordinated response is imperative to minimize damage, restore services and prevent damage.
Reliable communication is essential to this response. Yet communications equipment is also at risk from natural disasters and infrastructure failures. How do managers keep first responders and citizens connected and informed when the network itself is offline?
A promising answer is an ingenious combination of 5G communications, various forms of artificial intelligence and other advanced capabilities. The technologies and techniques are already available. Innovative government organizations are beginning to explore opportunities for disaster mitigation and emergency moderation.
5G, meet AI
Fifth-generation cellular networks, or 5G, have improved the speed, responsiveness, and usefulness of mobile communications. Layering 5G with various forms of AI can enable a situationally aware network topology that is intelligent enough to detect and scale automatically and quickly based on changing conditions.
For example, the Department of Defense could combine 5G and AI to enable the military’s cellular network to seamlessly connect its various operating environments on the battlefield. The network would have the intelligence to dynamically change its own topology to remain secure and resilient, while making data sharing safer and more reliable. This would enable faster and smarter decision-making in situations where speed and accuracy are paramount.
The same basic concepts apply in disaster and emergency situations. The result would be a purpose-built emergency 5G network that acts as a holistic and adaptive organism. It would constantly sense changing conditions, intelligently allow information to flow where it is needed, and empower victims and disaster responders to take the right action at the right time.
There’s a drone for that
During disasters like wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes, it is not uncommon for cell towers to be damaged, disrupting connectivity. In these cases, telecommunications providers or responders such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency may call in mobile cells (COWs). But these trailer-mounted tower replacements can take hours or days to deploy, and in mountainous or forested areas, they’re not always viable.
One solution would be to deploy 5G-equipped, AI-enabled drones as airborne, adaptable cell towers. Machine learning and simplified AI heuristics can intelligently track first responders, emergency vehicles, and related equipment to maintain cellular service wherever needed. These abilities can sense and navigate around obstacles such as mountains, vegetation, smoke, and weather. They can automatically repair the network if parts are newly damaged.
Additionally, AI can scale the network up or down as needed or relocate it as people and equipment change locations. If a rescue team is in danger or if their needs take priority over other users, the technology can optimize coverage to meet those demands.
In other words, 5G and AI combine to create a context-aware network. The network can take into account the number of fixed and airborne cell towers available, their maximum range, how much battery they have in reserve, how weather conditions may affect these factors, and so on.
Drones equipped with 5G and AI could even coordinate with AI-enabled equipment on the ground. For example, AI can automatically manage power consumption to maximize battery life. Or it can automatically connect a rescue team’s smartphones to create a mini 5G network.
The technology to achieve these goals is available today. In fact, at least one major telecom operator has field tested 5G-equipped drones in remote environments. AI models for these use cases will need to be trained, but this training can start now in centralized locations and then be refined at the edge, under real-world conditions.
The innovative combination of 5G, AI, drones and other technologies promises to transform the way government agencies and critical infrastructure operators respond to emergencies. They can reliably and cost-effectively ensure that rescue and response teams maintain continuous communication. Ultimately, they can improve the safety of emergency victims and responders and optimize disaster response outcomes.
Leland Brown is a senior engineer and technical director of advanced communications for military, aerospace and government at Intel Corp.
Stan Mo is a System Architect in the Internet of Things Group for Public Sector Programs at Intel Corp.
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