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Calit2 Researchers Deploy Disaster
Communications Network at San Diego Mardi Gras Festivities

By Maureen C. Curran and Doug Ramsey | March 13, 2006

Researcher Mustafa Arisoylu on one of the many field trips that Calit2 scientists took before Mardi Gras to scout locations for their equipment (Photos courtesy Michael Hennig).

> Watch a video of the Mardi Gras project
(RealMedia - requires broadband connection)

Mardi Gras is supposed to be a little wild, and maybe even a little out of control. But no one wants the celebrations to get out of hand to the point that revelers are danger.

So last month, a team of nearly 30 researchers from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) joined forces with San Diego law enforcement to make sure San Diegans and out-of-town visitors had a safe Mardi Gras on Feb. 28 in the Gaslamp Quarter.

The researchers built a wireless network made up of high-tech gadgets, including a satellite dish, cameras, wireless network boxes, laptops and even cell phones. Then they gave law enforcement access to the network and data it produced, such as video feeds. The project’s goal is to develop technologies that enable public safety officials and first responders to gather, use and disseminate information during an emergency. The Mardi Gras drill allowed researchers to test drive a wireless system that could be used in disasters and emergencies.

"This was the real world converging with research, prototyping, developing and improving tools," explained Calit2's UCSD director Ramesh Rao, who is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Police and first responders said they were impressed with the technologies Calit2 provided. San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne urged his lieutenants to work with the UCSD researchers to make some of the innovations available for the use of emergency officials in the event that a real disaster strikes.

Meanwhile, on the ground, officers and researchers had plenty to keep them busy: live bands, a parade down Fifth Avenue, extravagant costumes, beads, beads and more beads.

Researcher Brian Braunstein configures a wireless network device installed in a tree along Fifth Avenue.

Actually, for more than two dozen students, faculty and staff researchers from Calit2, most of the hard work happened before the sun went down. That’s because the researchers had to scramble to deploy the cameras, laptops and other devices that made up the wireless mesh they and law enforcement would be using.

Some systems had been tested in carefully planned disaster drills, under controlled circumstances. The big attraction of Mardi Gras was the real, live chaos.

The UCSD engineers acted as if most communications in a 24-square-block area of downtown had been crippled before the event started. That required setup and testing of a complete wireless infrastructure and related systems in the eight hours before thousands of partygoers crowded into the target zone. The police were given access to the systems, which enhanced their ability to monitor activity even in areas without officers on the scene.

Former undergraduate scholar Brian Braunstein, who is now a staff researcher in Calit2, helped deploy cameras in second story spaces to monitor key intersections: “All the cameras are for the police to see what’s going on in the crowd, if a fight is breaking out, or something like that… each camera is going to have a networking box with it, to enable it to connect back to the command center for the police.”

“Today we’re going to deploy two cameras and many people can look at each of those cameras and we’re going to give out six cell phones to the officers so they can see how it is.”

Staff researcher Ganz Chockalingam downloaded new software onto those cell phones, which allowed police officers anywhere in the area to monitor the video feeds. The small viewing area made it difficult to see anything in great detail, but Chockalingam is planning to upgrade the software so it works on the latest phones with large displays. Meanwhile, the same camera feeds were piped into the police and Calit2 command posts where the video quality was excellent.

Building on his Calit2 Wireless Traffic Report, which thousands of San Diegans use by every day to get up-to-the-minute information on their daily commute, Chockalingam also deployed “Call-To-Collaborate,” a system for relaying information and instructions en masse via cell phone, so police could alert officers to an emergency situation all at the same time.

Police also test-drove several other new applications. A wireless location-based tracking system allowed them to know at all times where colleagues and equipment were located. From UCSD’s operations center, team members also monitored the wireless mesh and sensors and ensured that they were working properly.

The ops center itself was part of the research: every decision and action was recorded by a microphone-and-camera array designed to provide data that would be useful in case of an emergency happening indoors.

Despite all the preparations, live events can bring surprises. This time, it was rain. Researchers quickly outfitted equipment with impromptu rain "coats" made out of plastic bags and rain "hats" made with inverted plastic bowls. Luckily, it did not rain on anyone's parade as nearly all devices worked properly. The researchers said they were very satisfied. Many added that they felt their expectations had not only been met, but exceeded. The Mardi Gras deployment produced significantly important research data and other information that would not have been discovered otherwise.

The devices had been developed as part of two National Science Foundation-funded projects: RESCUE, which stands for Responding to Crises and Unexpected Events and ResponSphere, which provided the Calit2 uniform of the day emblazoned with the cheeky question: Got Signal?

Late in the evening at the Tech Ops Center, Stephen Pasco, a Calit2 software and systems architect, summed things up. "And now," says Pasco, "the work begins..."

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