People all over the world can be affected by disasters such as levee breaks, major fires, and thunderstorms. In the future, intelligent systems will be able to comprehensively monitor potential threats - and save lives with their sophisticated warning capabilities.
“Of course you can’t prevent storms,” says Stephan Thern from Siemens’ BLIDS service. “But if you’re warned in time, you can interrupt an event and clear the area, and in that way prevent accidents.” BLIDS (a German acronym for Lightning Information Service) does exactly what its name implies. Anyone can take out a paid subscription to the lightning-warning service, which is unique to Germany. When the first lightning strike is registered in a predefined area, users receive an e-mail or SMS. Subscribers can also view the development of the storm on the Internet. Siemens’ main customers for the service include energy suppliers, airports, pipeline operators, and industrial firms.
“A lot of companies are susceptible to the type of voltage fluctuations that occur when lightning strikes somewhere in the grid,” Thern explains. BLIDS makes it possible for companies to shut down sensitive equipment before lightning strikes. “This is important for a facility like a wind power plant, whose rotor blades can be destroyed by a lightning strike,” says Thern, who also points out that work on pipelines, which can conduct electric current over many kilometers, also has to be stopped. BLIDS utilizes data from 150 stations throughout Europe, 15 of which are located in Germany. Every lightning bolt creates an electromagnetic field that spreads out in all directions at the speed of light; in Germany alone, as many as 200,000 bolts are generated on some summer days. BLIDS stations record the corresponding signals at intervals of just a few millionths of a second, and because the stations are synchronized via GPS they can determine the location of a lighting strike to within 200 meters.
The basic version of BLIDS was introduced 20 years ago; since then it has evolved from a simple series of maps into a range of complex tools. At the heart of BLIDS is a geographic information system (GIS) from Siemens. The system links maps with other spatial information, such as fixed data that is rarely updated — for example, land registries, including canals and pipes. With BLIDS, data about the properties of a lightning strike or electric current’s strength can be called up immediately. Customers can thus respond quickly to any changes.
“This information keeps us abreast of the latest developments,” says Thern, who plans to link existing geographic information more closely with weather and facility data. Once all the data is incorporated into the GIS, companies responsible for free-standing power lines will be able to discern at a glance whether part of a network is down due to a lightning strike or a fallen tree, for example. Thern can also imagine a BLIDS smartphone app for hikers, spectators at open-air festivals, and soccer referees (who could use it to decide whether a match should be interrupted due to a storm). “We’d be more than happy to get an order from the German Soccer Federation,” he says with a broad smile.
Managing Emergencies. But Siemens’ technology doesn’t just give advance warning of lightning strikes. Whereas lighting strikes kill around a thousand people a year worldwide, heavy floods such as those that occurred in Thailand in 2011 can result in hundreds of deaths in a short period. The Geneva Association, a research organization operated by the insurance industry, estimates that fires in industrialized countries cause financial damage equivalent to one percent of their gross national product. Around 600 people die in Germany every year due to fires in buildings; the figure for the U.S. is over 3,000. State-of-the-art disaster management systems could reduce these numbers.
If a blaze does break out, it’s important to have fire protection systems that react flexibly and intelligently. “Living and working conditions are becoming more and more complex,” says Markus Niederberger from Siemens Building Technologies in Zug, Switzerland. “Fire alarms aren’t enough any more.“ Niederberger and his colleagues are now attempting to link various safety and alarm systems in a smart overall package. “We want to develop a fully automated system that includes everything from fire alarms to emergency lighting and evacuation,” Niederberger explains. Not all the technologies needed are available yet, but the key components already exist. Siemens, for example, supplies complete building management systems that monitor and control various subsystems, such as fire alarms.
Intelligent emergency systems recognize specific situations and autonomously implement appropriate measures. Siemens offers, for example, a mass messaging system that provides information to everyone affected by an emergency situation. “This technology is already well established in the U.S.,” says Niederberger. For example, many American universities now have systems that use electronic displays on campus, or send e-mails or text messages to alert students if a fire breaks out or some other catastrophic event occurs.
In addition, smart emergency systems should also be able to guide people away from danger. In the future, a voice-controlled evacuation system is to provide appropriate information in every part of a building. To this end, the system also needs to know where people are located. “In other words, there’s no need to use the standard evacuation plan in an office building where only one floor is occupied at night because an event is being staged there,” Niederberger explains. He and his colleagues are now trying to devise a viable solution for an occupancy detection system that will automatically locate unconscious people as well. “Various ideas are being considered, such as video cameras, infrared detection, and even smart flooring that can register differences in pressure. At the moment we’re evaluating a range of technologies.” The package will also include simulation software that is now being developed by engineers at Building Technologies and Siemens Corporate Technology (CT).
Closer Monitoring of Levees. Unlike buildings, levees are not checked very often, and monitoring tends to be random. “That’s not good, given that more than two thirds of all European cities are susceptible to flooding,” says Robert Meijer from the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). Meijer, a physicist, therefore launched the EU UrbanFlood project in 2009.
Together with Siemens and other partners, he developed a system that monitors levees and triggers an alarm when danger threatens. At Siemens Corporate Technology, Bernhard Lang and his team of engineers intend to make flooding protection systems as intelligent as those used for fire protection. To this end, early-warning systems are to be combined, for example, with lock, wastewater and drinking-water supply systems. Of crucial importance here are the sensors that monitor levees online. Meijer and his colleagues are currently testing various probes that record parameters such as pressure, temperature, water speed, and ground moisture at several levees in Boston (UK), Rees in the Lower Rhine region in Germany, and Amsterdam. However, there is a problem: So far there isn’t really enough data to determine what the normal state of a levee should be and thus recognize when things might be getting critical.
A possible solution is the use of computer programs that combine machine learning and signal processing. For instance, Siemens experts working under the direction of Ilya Mokhov in St. Petersburg, Russia, have developed and integrated algorithms that use measurement data to detect when a levee is in danger of breaking. “We use the sensor data and features extracted from the data to create a set of portraits of the levee in its normal state,” Mokhov explains.
If an exceptionally strong deviation from the reference data is later observed, the software will issue an alarm. Because the system learns, the more situations it “experiences,” the better it gets. That’s why it is being trained in experiments at a test levee in the Netherlands and in simulations conducted by researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Siemens CT. The programs are being taught to use physical formulas to determine how the state of a levee changes in different situations.
With a view to bringing such solutions to the public, Siemens and TNO have developed an interactive multitouch levee analysis platform. In visitor centers in Boston and St. Petersburg, as well as in Siemens’ ‘The Crystal’ city development center in London, people can use their fingers to zoom in on a levee in Eemshaven, the Netherlands, on a map that was put online by the UrbanFlood team. Touching other parts of the screen makes data from sensors inside the levee visible in the form of curves and time lines.
Still, the UrbanFlood team has a long way to go if Robert Meijers’ dream of monitoring all levees in Europe online is to come true. His researchers want to start with a 50-kilometer section of the Rhine levee on the border between Germany and the Netherlands. Meijer believes Europe’s biggest river is the ideal test object. “When you stand on the levee in Rees and see just how far away the other bank of the river is, you get a good idea of the huge amount of water that flows through here,” he says. In any case, the people who live in the villages protected by the levee will be happy to know that the barrier that keeps their homes safe will soon be precisely monitored around the clock.