Sensors at the heart of disaster relief

High-quality, IECQ-certified electronics inside provides increased safety and reliability in times of crises

By Claire Marchand

Long gone is the time when populations knew of an earthquake when it was actually happening, when rescue teams cleared rubble with their bare hands, when it took days to deliver food and medical supplies to devastated and isolated areas in the aftermath of natural disasters. Technology now plays a major role not only in disaster relief but also in disaster prevention and mitigation. 

Sentinel-3A Ocean monitoring and remote sensing satellite Artist's impression of the Sentinel-3A Ocean monitoring and remote sensing satellite (Photo: ESA)

Prevent? Probably not. Mitigate? Yes

The world population is growing rapidly. That has often led to building housing in areas that are prone to landslides, earthquakes or flooding with the consequence that natural hazards become major disasters involving devastation and a great number of fatalities. 

The 21st century has already seen its share of major catastrophes – the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant explosion in Japan, Hurricane Sandy hitting the US East Coast in 2012, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, to named only a few. 

Could they have been prevented? It is nearly impossible to prevent natural disasters from happening but measures can be taken to mitigate their impact on local population and infrastructure. 

Detection and warning systems

Although it seems difficult to prevent natural disasters from happening, new technological developments offer means to detect movements in the tectonic plates across the globe and broadcast warning signals of imminent earthquakes. For instance, remote sensing satellite data provide information and assistance in all stages of the disaster management cycle. 

Optical fibre sensors can detect small shifts in soil slopes and send alerts of potential landslides. These warning systems may not prevent natural disasters but they often give local authorities enough time to organize the evacuation of areas at risk (see e-tech article Dealing with known unknowns – and knowns in this issue). 

High-tech rescue operations

In this day and age, restoring communications in the aftermath of a natural disaster is a must, to allow people to communicate with one another and with rescue teams. With all infrastructure gone to rubble and mobile networks down, the solution comes in the form of mesh networks that wirelessly connect devices without passing through a phone company or an Internet service provider (ISP). 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can undertake reconnaissance missions over devastated zones and deliver essential supplies to isolated areas (see e-tech article Robots to the rescue in this issue). 

One of the consequences of natural disasters is often power failure. Solar panels coupled with LED lamps can come to the rescue of people in devastated areas by providing them with lighting during the dark hours (see e-tech article Plug and play for refugees in this issue). 

Infallible electronics is a must

A great number of technologies have come to play important roles in disaster prevention and relief and they all have one common denominator: sensors. Whatever the sensor – and there are hundreds of sensor types – it has to be accurate and reliable. A defective sensor can have serious consequences, especially when disaster strikes, often putting additional human lives in jeopardy. 

Safety in the electronic component supply chain

Sensor manufacturers and suppliers all over the world have a powerful tool at their disposal, enabling their products to meet the strictest requirements: IECQ testing and certification. IECQ is the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components. 

As the worldwide approval and certification system covering the supply of electronic components, assemblies and associated materials and processes, IECQ tests and certifies components using quality assessment specifications based on IEC International Standards. 

In addition, there are a multitude of related materials and processes that are covered by the IECQ Schemes. IECQ certificates are used worldwide as a tool to monitor and control the manufacturing supply chain, thus helping to reduce costs and time to market, and eliminating the need for multiple re-assessments of suppliers. 

More information on IECQ: www.iecq.org 

Gallery
Earthquake monitoring NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, has been monitoring active earthquake faults in California with a number of remote sensing and ground-based techniques (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Google Earth)
Sentinel-3A Ocean monitoring and remote sensing satellite Artist's impression of the Sentinel-3A Ocean monitoring and remote sensing satellite (Photo: ESA)
SolarPuff lantern Girl holding solar lantern called SolarPuff refugee camp in Greece (Photo: Gigglecam/Wikipedia)