Tag Archives: emergencymanagement

Nano-quadrotors: Big Threat on a Small Scale?

What this Ted Talk as a primer for this post:


Guest Post by: Bob Fletcher

I have been in the field of emergency management for more than 40 years and have studied hazards and threats of all kinds; natural and manmade. I lived through the Civil Defense Era with the looming threat of strategic nuclear attack and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. I fear the power of nature as well and its destructive forces. And an emergency manager at the national level for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a career senior executive at FEMA, I have witnessed first-hand 4 decades of incidents of all types . And as a consultant to government, I have dedicated the last 12 years to imagining catastrophic future threats and their consequences. So you might conclude that there aren’t many things that I haven’t considered possible in the realm of hazards. That would be wrong.

The use of nano-technology for terrorism has recently become one of my biggest interests and concerns. I have been aware of the field for many years. Who hasn’t read Popular Science articles or Sci-fi novels where self replicating swarms of nano-bots threaten our very existence. “Prey” and the recently released “Micro” by Michael Crichton fascinate us with descriptions of nanotechnology gone awry. I have often read books such as these and pondered the timeline for emergence of these threats. I believe that the time for concern is now.

While paging through Flipboard recently, I stumbled upon a YouTube video that shocked me. The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at University of Pennsylvania researchers are building autonomous vehicles and robots, developing self-configuring humanoids, and making robot swarms a reality. The video that I viewed was of a swarm of 20 flying “nanno quadrotors” executing precision maneuvers that would make any human pilot envious. These tiny remote controlled and self controlled devices acted in unison to execute complex tasks flawlessly, including the ability to act in unison to lift and construct structures, fly in formation through open windows and small openings, perch and remain on vertical and horizon surfaces in surveillance mode, and re-launch on command, or autonomously. As I watched the video, my fascination turned to paranoia as the realization that the capability to execute nano-terrorism is now a practical reality. Although the potential for aerially deployed agents is only limited by ones imagination, terrestrial and subsurface (land and water) nano-robotic threats are similarly endless.

The same Penn GRASP website shows videos of very small seemingly unstoppable 6 legged all terrain robots in action. Again, in large numbers, this is a frightening capability that could be employed with relatively low cost and potentially high consequence. A quick check on the Google revealed that the latest, smallest remote controlled helicopter can be purchased on line for less than $50. Clearly the GRASP quadrotors cost much more, for now. But a larger retail version of a quadrotor called a Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter is available for around $300 at your local Brookstone store or on line. It comes ready to fly and can be controlled by a IPhone app! ( I plan to buy one)

I don’t mean to mislead you. Robotics is just a small sliver of what might be called nanotechnology. Definitions abound and most would assert that nanotechnology begins at a much smaller size. The official definition of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is that nanotechnology involves research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels in the length scale of 1 to 100 nm range. And there are differences of opinion about how the term applies to science and engineering versus outcomes or applications. So, I do not intend to go there, at least for now. Imagine an ant, a human hair, a blood cell, a virus, DNA and downward as the range of concern. But, if I can buy a miniature helicopter today for $15, I will be able to buy a nano-ATV in the near future.
The Yin Yang of technology has always existed and will continue to challenge and excite our imaginations. As an engineer and an emergency management consultant, I will include nanotech threats in my next hazard identification and risk assessment (HIRA) for clients as they seek to look over the horizon. I will also explore their positive application in combating and responding to current and future threats such as in detection, monitoring, surveillance, countermeasures and response missions in hostile environments.
Meanwhile remember, what you can’t see can hurt you.

Still not convinced Social Media is important? Read Craig Fugate’s Testimony

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Here is the link to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s written statement of his testimony┬áto the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Repsonse and Communications. The stated topic was FEMA’s progress since the enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) five years ago.

On page 7 he states the importance of social media and mobile communications:

“Looking to the emergency communications of the future, FEMA is also developing a next- generation infrastructure for alert and warning capabilities, known as PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network). Cell phones are data centers, capable of quickly accessing and storing a large amount of information. One of the major lessons we learned from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was that even if the physical infrastructure of an area is completely destroyed, the cellular infrastructure may be able to bounce back quickly, allowing emergency managers to relay important disaster-related information and enabling the public to request help from local first┬áresponders. This new, free public safety system allows customers with an enabled mobile device to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area whether nearby cell phone towers are jammed or not.

We are also expanding our use of social media tools. Social media is an important part of the Whole Community approach because it helps facilitate the vital two-way communication between emergency management agencies and the public, and it allows us to quickly and specifically share information with state, local, territorial, and tribal governments as well as the public. FEMA uses multiple social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach the public. Rather than asking the public to change the way they communicate to fit our system, we are adapting the way we do business to fit the way the public already communicates. We value social media tools not only because they allow us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because they allow us to incorporate critical updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.”