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RIT’s Imaging System Used in Haiti Relief Effort

Research Summary

The Information Products Laboratory for Emergency Response (IPLER), hosted in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, in collaboration with the University at Buffalo’s National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA), has applied ground-breaking geospatial analysis and technology for use in disaster zones, including the Haiti earthquake relief effort. The high-tech airborne imaging system revealed topographical features through high-resolution aerial images and Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) data, exposing damaged buildings, access roads, broken bridges, and images of ruptures along the fault line that ripped through the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, this past January. IPLER is increasingly being employed in areas requiring emergency response because of its detailed imaging and quick analysis capabilities.

Current Research

The IPLER team in Haiti utilized a twin-engine Piper plane equipped with a high-spatial-resolution (6-inch pixels) camera system and a LiDAR sensor, and made daily flights over Port au Prince and surrounding areas for seven days, capturing images that were used to detect and measure collapsed buildings and other structures damaged by the quake. LiDAR technology creates 3-D layered image maps by bouncing a pulsating laser off the ground, so that even a plane flying 2,500 feet in the sky can measure distances to objects or surface terrain, as well as elevation levels, in precise detail. It creates a 3-D image by calculating the differences in time required for the laser to bounce off the surface and then return to the aircraft from multiple ground positions – the longer it takes, the further the object. The imaging and laser systems were successfully used in Haiti to reveal heavy refugee populations, unstable buildings, and areas of rubble along the city’s hillsides, which, during the rainy season, can create massive mudslides if not properly managed.

LiDAR can also be used in a variety of other applications, including assistance in flood mapping, exploring ancient ruin sites, and exposing coastal erosion. In another example, the technology was recently used in the ancient Mayan city Caracol in Belize. In just four days, archaeologists were able to uncover data that revealed new ruins, causeways and agricultural terraces – information that had been unknown despite twenty-five years of research – from just ten hours of laser measurements taken by a plane equipped with LiDAR. IPLER has used LiDAR to create 3D maps of flood sites, providing structural data quickly needed in emergency relief scenarios that can prevent catastrophes. Subsequent research will focus on algorithm development for structural disaster response products, such as automated building damage assessment.

Other RIT and IPLER-based projects that are aimed at improving emergency response systems include fire detection and response systems. Using color (RGB), short-wave, mid-wave, and long-wave infrared, RIT’s Laboratory for Imaging and Algorithms Systems (LIAS) and Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing (DIRS) teams have been able to assist in wildfire detection and behavior analysis with effective thermal-sensing platforms using RIT’s Wildfire Airborne Sensor Program (WASP) sensor. The WASP program can also be used in aquatic environments, tracking fast-moving speedboats based on varying temperature profiles of the wake created by the boat’s movement. In all scenarios, a thermal image is created that provides for quick, ground-level analysis and response.

Future Developments

In the future, IPLER intends to make the data captured by the WASP aircraft available immediately to a receiving station on the ground. Currently, the radio-frequency link that transmits the data is restricted to the Rochester, NY area. Once fully engineered, real-time imagery captured by the WASP system will be available on the ground for immediate use in a geospatial environment – no matter where the data are collected. In Haiti, for example, if a capable link were established, the mapping could have been used immediately by relief agencies on the ground, instead of relaying the information back to IPLER’s RIT base for processing and analysis first.

The Team

Dr. Donald L. Doyd, Project Administrator, RIT, Vice President for Research
Don McKeown, Project Manager, RIT Laboratory for Imaging Algorithms and Systems
Dr. Jan van Aardt, co-PI, Lidar and Structural Research, RIT Laboratory for Imaging Algorithms and Systems
Dr. Anthony Vodacek, co-PI, Fire Research, RIT Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing
Dr. Chris Renschler, co-PI, Flood Research, University at Buffalo Department of Geography


During the Haiti relief effort, the IPLER team worked in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico, which downloaded the large data-rich files taken by the WASP and LiDAR sensors, and then transferred them back to RIT for analysis. The relief program was funded by the World Bank, which was connected to IPLER through one of its private-side partners, ImageCat Inc. Other collaborators on the effort included The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Other IPLER partners on various projects include:

Private: DigitalGlobe; Pictometry International; Kucera International Inc.; Wacom Technology Corporation

Public: US Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center; New York State Deputy Secretary for Public Safety; New York State Emergency Management Office (SEMO); United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS); and New York State Foundation for Science, Technology & Innovation (NYSTAR)


Dr. Donald L. Boyd
Vice President for Research
2003 Slaughter Building
74 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, NY 14623-5604
(585) 475-7844 Phone
(585) 475-6886 Fax