A helping hand with legs
- By David Walsh
- Mar 24, 2008
STAR-TIDES demonstrates portable relief infrastructure
It’s a bit of a mouthful: Sustainable Technologies, Accelerated Research-Transportable Infrastructures for Development and Emergency Support, or STAR-TIDES. But what is termed a research event for studying disaster mitigation is generating a lot of buzz in the United States and abroad.
STAR-TIDES is an ongoing effort by government and nongovernmental organizations to create easily deployable infrastructure for disaster and humanitarian relief efforts, providing everything from basic shelter to satellite communications — along with the infrastructure for government agencies and NGOs to collaborate and coordinate relief efforts.
Leading the STAR-TIDES concept is National Defense University (NDU) professor Linton Wells, a former Defense Department acting chief information officer. He explained that STAR-TIDES “is based on several years of observations of what actually goes on in stabilization and reconstruction, humanitarian aid, disaster relief and building partner capacity.”
Some of the elements of STAR-TIDES’ research were on display at the February AFCEA West conference in San Diego, including examples of the seven infrastructure cores of the STAR-TIDES concept: shelter; water; power; integrated cooking, heating, lighting and cooling; sanitation; information technology and voice communications technology.
The project has also been a bargain for the government, Wells said. “Less than $20,000 in U.S. government investment generated more than $700,000 in private-sector engagement.”
“This is a research project, so it fits within NDU’s mission,” he said. “And it’s [a] coalition of the willing involving lots of different people.” DOD is participating along with several other interested organizations, Wells said, stressing that STAR-TIDES is not a government project. Affiliates include Johns Hopkins University, San Diego State’s Visualization Lab and Singapore’s Nan Yang University.
One of the key differences between STAR-TIDES and traditional emergency response solutions, its proponents say, is that many of the elements demonstrated were put together with low-cost commercial components. That includes small, $200 generators from Home Depot; water-purification, cooking and air-filtration equipment; and compact satellite communications systems. Some demonstration components, such as battery chargers and food cookers, were solar-powered.
Several quick-assembly tents and hard-walled structures also were on display, including the Hexayurt, a durable, rigid shelter made from thermal insulation materials and other components that costs less than $200 retail. Untrained volunteers using a simple diagram can assemble them.
The project is also investigating how to provide information technology infrastructure for relief efforts. Coby Leuschke, founder of CivMil.org, which provides a collaboration site for STAR-TIDES and other information resources, said, “We are trying to align our use of STAR-TIDES.net with a Web system that could be used to scale and support real-world responses so they are not mutually exclusive but may have slightly different needs.”
Much of the software infrastructure supporting STAR-TIDES is open source, Leuschke said. “It gives us the flexibility to engage with other communities of interest with less worry of licensing issues and costs,” he said. “And [it] gives us the potential flexibility to add features or make changes based on emergent needs.”
A purely military disaster response, in addition to being slow, is sometimes needlessly regulation-bound, Wells said. For example, disposition of shelters and other survival elements in the aftermath of a crisis may be controlled by custody cards. Under STARTIDES precepts, equipment can remain with target populations, Wells said.
In October, a STAR-TIDES model was unveiled at NDU to officials from the National Guard Bureau, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Red Cross and Homeland Security Department. Guests included Gen. William “Kip” Ward, head of Africom, DOD’s combatant command for Africa.
Within five hours, shelters were erected and satellite communications up and running. So was video teleconferencing, enabling tent-to-tent and tent-to-remote area participation and analysis.
Communications — situational awareness and speedy data sharing — is “the critical enabler of everything else that happens,” Wells said. “People need to know which bridges are out, where the capacity is to get rice to where it’s needed” and so forth. And information exchange “has to be independent of the power grid because it’s not likely to be there — so you can’t rely on cell phones or plug-in power.”
Portable satellite communications are one option. The version seen at the October demo, made by GATR, was highly portable and inflatable. “The idea is that you put the 80-pound dish in a duffel bag and carry it with your team on commercial flights,” said Vinay Gupta, a member of the STAR-TIDES team and head of the Hexayurt Project. Then you transport it to the disaster zone, set it up, and you have comms and data back home from Day One.”
Ordinarily, “a conventional dish weighs 700 pounds, comes on a separate plane and sits in customs for two weeks before you can get it to the site — if you can get it to the site,” Gupta said. “It’s a game-changing product in terms of humanitarian comms.”
Other satellite communications systems that STAR-TIDES demonstrated are meant to be hiked into remote locales in backpacks, powered by solar cells or batteries, and connected to a satellite at low bandwidth, “setting up a Wi-Fi cloud around itself for a few hundred feet,” Wells said. “You could get in there and at least let people know what’s happening and begin to coordinate responses.”
Also important, Wells said, was bridging technology that enables interoperability: “It lets first responders use their own equipment and the guys who fly in use theirs.” Patch gear would, for example, connect local police using handheld units with satcomm-equipped FEMA officials.
STAR-TIDES participants are studying the National Guard’s AC- 1000 bridge, Wells said. And although compatibility is not 100 percent, “we’re getting to the stage where it’s vastly different than it was” after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he added.
For now, voice over IP “lets you take the audio out of the handheld radio, turn it into packets, route it through the bridge and send it to the inputted satellite — where it gets turned back into whatever the satellite needs,” Wells said. “That way, you don’t have to rip all the equipment from first responders’ hands the way you used to.”
Wells said this and similar potential solutions largely redressed tragic deficiencies encountered during the 2001 attacks and during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Gupta said some STAR-TIDES iterations might integrate a VOIP-based telephone routing board, so “you have a way of reaching people on their old phone numbers even if the phone system is wiped out. You take their old number, add a prefix, dial it into a VOIP phone or other working telephone — perhaps outside of the disaster area — and it either takes a message or reroutes the call to the new number if one has been established.”
Wells could not say when any production versions might appear or predict STAR-TIDES’ impact on actual emergencies. There are too many unknowns and variables: which actors here or abroad would be involved and to what extent, which configurations of the seven infrastructure packages would be appropriate, and which agencies or departments at the federal and state levels would take the lead in a given event.
However, Wells said, with millions of dollars available for implementing various aspects, STAR-TIDES is way beyond proof-of-concept.
“The National Guard has 50 or 52 vehicles deployed or ready to go, one for each state and two for California and New York. You go to the scene and hook together these different types of systems: local and state police, fire and medical people. These are actually being fielded.”
Interoperability, diminishing bandwidth and other crisis-mitigation challenges will be addressed in STAR-TIDES’ next round.
“We’re looking at this for this coming July — the Golden Phoenix exercise in San Diego,” Wells said. Led by the Customs and Border Protection agency, it will also involve Marine Corps reserve units and state and local first responders, he added. “This is an opportunity to see how well these [technologies] work together.”
David Walsh is a special contributor to Defense Systems.