Meet Surfside's Disaster-Data Forensic Sleuths – IEEE Spectrum

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NSF’s RAPID team have deployed lidar, drones, and seismometers in an engineering race against the clock
The site of the Champlain Towers South partial collapse in Surfside, Florida.
When Champlain Towers South, a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb of Surfside, partially collapsed on the night of June 24, it was a disaster that no one expected. But one team, at least, was prepared for it.
Since 2018, the National Science Foundation’s Natural Hazards Reconnaissance Facility (known as the RAPID) has provided instrumentation, software, training, and support for research before, during, and after about 75 natural hazard and disaster events. Almost overnight, it can dispatch everything from iPads and cameras to a flock of sensor-packed drones or even a robotic hydrographic survey boat—as well as the expertise to use them.
In contrast to the public safety professionals who’ve deployed drones to determine the scope of the collapse and seek out survivors, the RAPID group looks for evidence of how and why buildings fall in the first place. And RAPID’s mission is equally time-critical.
“We are set up to rapidly enter a disaster zone and very quickly collect the data before it’s cleaned up as part of rescue and recovery,” says RAPID director Joe Wartman, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, where RAPID is based. “In a sense, we’re the Navy SEALs of disaster data collection. We’re the only facility in the world that does this work.”
At least 98 people are now thought to have died in the Surfside disaster. Once its scale became clear, the RAPID team knew requests for assistance would quickly follow. “For major events like a big hurricane, we receive many more requests for RAPID than we can support,” says Joy Pauschke, program director for the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) facility, of which RAPID is a part. “It’s up to us to go through and figure out which ones are addressing fundamental research questions, and to understand the situational awareness of accessing and operating at the location.”
Within days, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that it would be carrying out a full technical investigation of the tower’s collapse—only its fifth such investigation since it was authorized to do so following the 9/11 attacks. NIST asked RAPID to deploy to Surfside to monitor a similar neighboring building to help it understand more about the structure that collapsed.
The team quickly gathered a lidar surveying system, drones, seismometers and accelerometers, and caught a red-eye flight to Miami. Even as they were in the air, however, everything changed. Tropical Storm Elsa was bearing down on the Florida coast, threatening the remaining structure. For the safety of rescuers and potential survivors alike, the stricken building would have to be fully demolished before the storm made landfall.
“By the time our team got on the ground, our mission had changed from simply monitoring, to trying to capture a full, three-dimensional digital model of the building before it was imploded the next day,” says Wartman.
NIST and National Science Foundation staff members discuss imaging of the Champlain Towers South site using lidar. NIST and National Science Foundation staff members discuss imaging of the Champlain Towers South site using lidar, which uses pulsed laser light to measure distances to objects, creating a 3D representation of the site. NIST
RAPID team members went straight from the airport to the site, where they set up the lidar system amid unstable piles of rubble. “If we had two weeks to do this, we could have let the unit go for hours and scanned at the ultimate resolution,” says Wartman. “But we were racing to capture all of this before the building came down, so we made the decision to do half-hour scans, giving just enough detail to get key structural components.”

Working during the rescue teams’ break times, RAPID engineers managed to complete seven scans detailed enough to measure the location and spacing of the building’s metal rebar, the color and thickness of its concrete slabs, as well as trace individual cracks. The scans also recorded fallen columns and slabs nearby. Because lidar is an active sensor—rather a camera that passively records an image—the RAPID team could even work in low light.
After the structure was demolished on the evening of July 4, the RAPID team remained on site to scan the original debris pile. “The initially collapsed portion had a lot of information in it, in terms of the geometries of where things landed,” says Jeff Berman, RAPID’s Operations Director and also a UW engineering professor. “These were uncovered and documented as the rescue effort continued, layer by layer.”
The RAPID team also flew a drone to collect image data, and instrumented Champlain Towers North, a near-twin of the collapsed building, with accelerometers and a seismometer. “These will measure incoming vibrations from heavy equipment on the excavation site and measure the building’s vibration in response,” says Berman. “The motivation is to inform the analysis of the south tower because its structural characteristics, natural period, and distribution of mass are likely to be similar.”
After 10 days in Surfside, the RAPID engineers packed to return to Seattle—much lighter than when they arrived. With only three full-time staff, RAPID cannot stay at even a major disaster for long. “We can’t go everywhere all the time,” says Bergman. “So we left equipment with NIST staff who we had trained, and they were able to continue running scans until the excavation of the collapsed portion of building was at basement grade.”
By this point, the RAPID team had stitched together its lidar and drone scans into a single, photo-realistic 3D model of the fallen building, and handed it over to NIST.
“What NIST is going to be spending its time on for the next year or two is trying to simulate the collapse to figure out what caused it,” says Wartman. “They’ll develop finite element models with a physics base, and use our 3D geometry to validate those models, to help understand where things landed and what portions did or didn’t collapse.”
The lidars and drones, meanwhile, have just arrived back at RAPID’s Seattle HQ. They will now be cleaned, checked, recharged and put carefully back into their hard cases, ready to be dispatched again when the next unexpected disaster strikes.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging. 
The SEALs of disaster data collection, a.k.a. the “Search Enumerate And Log” team 🙂
A fake contract masked a design exercise–and started an industry
In 1971 video games were played in computer science laboratories when the professors were not looking—and in very few other places. In 1973 millions of people in the United States and millions of others around the world had seen at least one video game in action. That game was Pong.
Two electrical engineers were responsible for putting this game in the hands of the public—Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, both of whom, with Ted Dabney, started Atari Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Bushnell told Mr. Alcorn that Atari had a contract from General Electric Co. to design a consumer product. Mr. Bushnell suggested a Ping-Pong game with a ball, two paddles, and a score, that could be played on a television.
“There was no big contract,” Mr. Alcorn said recently. “Nolan just wanted to motivate me to do a good job. It was really a design exercise; he was giving me the simplest game he could think of to get me to play with the technology.”
The key piece of technology he had to toy with, he explained, was a motion circuit designed by Mr. Bushnell a year earlier as an employee of Nutting Associates. Mr. Bushnell first used the circuit in an arcade game called Computer Space, which he produced after forming Atari. It sold 2000 units but was never a hit.
This article was first published as “Pong: an exercise that started an industry.” It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special report, “Video games: The electronic big bang.” A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.
The key piece of technology he had to toy with, he explained, was a motion circuit designed by Mr. Bushnell a year earlier as an employee of Nutting Associates. Mr. Bushnell first used the circuit in an arcade game called Computer Space, which he produced after forming Atari. It sold 2000 units but was never a hit.
In the 1960s Mr. Bushnell had worked at an amusement park and had also played space games on a PDP-10 at college. He divided the cost of a computer by the amount of money an average arcade game made and promptly dropped the idea, because the economics did not make sense.
Then in 1971 he saw a Data General computer advertised for $5000 and determined that a computer game played on six terminals hooked up to that computer could be profitable. He began designing a space game to run on such a timeshared system, but because game action occurs in real time, the computer was too slow. Mr. Bushnell began trying to take the load off the central computer by making the terminals smarter, adding a sync generator in each, then circuits to display a star field, until the computer did nothing but keep track of where the player was. Then, Mr. Bushnell said, he realized he did not need the central computer at all—the terminals could stand alone.
“He actually had the order for the computers completed, but his wife forgot to mail it,” Mr. Alcorn said, adding, “We would have been bankrupt if she had.”
Mr. Bushnell said, “The economics were not longer a $6000 computer plus all the hardware in the monitors; they became a $400 computer hooked up to a $100 monitor and put in a $100 cabinet. The ice water thawed in my veins.”
The ball in Pong is square. Considering the amount of circuitry a round ball would require, “who is going to pay an extra quarter for a round ball?”
Computer Space appealed only to sophisticated game players—those who were familiar with space games on mainframe computers, or those who frequent the arcades today. It was well before its time. Pong, on the other hand, was too simple for an EE like Mr. Bushnell to consider designing it as a real game—and that is why it was a success.
Mr. Bushnell had developed the motion circuit in his attempt to make the Computer Space terminals smarter, but Mr. Alcorn could not read his schematics and had to redesign it. Mr. Alcorn was trying to get the price down into the range of an average consumer product, which took a lot of ingenuity and some tradeoffs.
“There was no real bulk memory available in 1972,” he said. “We were faced with having a ball move into any of the spots in a 200-by-200 array without being able to store a move. We did it with about 10 off-the-shelf TTL parts by making sync generators that were set one or two lines per frame off register.”
Thus, the ball would move in relation to the screen, both vertically and horizontally, just as a misadjusted television picture may roll. Mr. Alcorn recalled that he originally used a chip from Fairchild to generate the display for the score, but it cost $5, and he could do the same thing for $3 using TTL parts, though the score was cruder.
The ball in Pong is square—another tradeoff. Considering the amount of circuitry a round ball would require, Mr. Alcorn asked, “who is going to pay an extra quarter for a round ball?”
Sound was also a point of contention at Atari. Mr. Bushnell wanted the roar of approval of a crowd of thousands; Mr. Dabney wanted the crowd booing.
“How do you do that with digital stuff?” Mr. Alcorn asked. “I told them I didn’t have enough parts to do that, so I just poked around inside the vertical sync generator for the appropriate tones and made the cheapest sound possible.”
The hardware design of Pong took three months, and Mr. Alcorn’s finished prototype had 73 ICs, which, at 50 cents a chip, added up to $30 to $40 worth of parts. “That’s a long way from a consumer product, not including the package, and I was depressed, but Noland said ‘Yeah, well, not bad.’”
They set the Pong 2 prototype up in a bar and got a call the next day to take it out because it was not working. When they arrived, the problem was obvious: the coin box was jammed full of quarters.


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