A hotel caught fire in Dubai on New Year’s Eve 2015. People throughout the world were at first shocked and then astonished by what happened. Flames leaped out of the windows of several of the hotel’s 63 floors. Although 16 people suffered from smoke inhalation, most of the hotel’s guests remained unscathed. Although everyone in the building was rescued, the fire serves as a warning, because it demonstrates how quickly fires can spread even in luxury hotels such as the one in Dubai. Moreover, not all of these fires have a happy ending. There are innumerable cases in which burning buildings have become deathtraps.
Simulation and Virtual Realities
Saving Lives with Software
Siemens Corporate Technology has developed and introduced software that uses building data to automatically calculate optimal escape routes and suggest architectural changes. Not only is the software invaluable in planning buildings and entire campuses, but it can provide automated support in optimizing evacuations as they happen.
An Automated Polyglot
The severity of such disasters can be mitigated if building clients use simulation early on to determine how quickly a future building could be evacuated in the event of an emergency. Bottlenecks where congestion can occur or steep stairs that can cause people to fall are danger zones that must be recognized as such before construction even starts. To make this possible, experts from Siemens’ Corporate Technology (CT), the company’s central research unit, have developed Crowd Control evacuation software that enables users to simulate evacuation scenarios for a specific building long before the building exists. The software, which was further developed and tested in the context of a European Union research project, is now being used by CT-specialists in close cooperation with architects and fire protection experts when new buildings are being planned. “Although our software has always been reliable, you primarily had to feed it with building information and analyze the results by hand,” says software specialist Hermann Mayer from CT. “That’s why we’ve now automated Crowd Control to such an extent that users can practically start simulations with the push of a button.”
This automation affects all three stages of the simulation process: First, the recording of a building’s data; second, the actual computing process; and, third, data output. The data recording process is very complex because today building data can be available in a variety of formats – as architectural sketches on paper, as computer-generated CAD drawings, and, most recently, as digital 3D building models. Although there are standards for construction drawings, variations are still possible. For example, an insulating wall can be depicted as a thick or thin line that can also be hatched or dotted. “We have developed software that can interpret these diverse data formats and independently transform them into a uniform digital building model,” says Wolfram Klein, who is responsible for the development of Crowd Control at CT.
Software that Supports Architects
Just how Crowd Control software simplifies work is demonstrated during the second stage, the computing process. In the past, this software made separate simulation calculations for individual settings. For example, if Crowd Control was asked to analyze the evacuation of 500 people from five floors, it used the building plan to calculate how much time would be needed. If the evacuation took too long, users had to rectify the problem by optimizing specific building parameters, such as the width of the doors, by hand. However, the automation of Crowd Control now enables the software to use a building’s digital blueprint to independently calculate a variety of alternative solutions for different numbers of people, for example. Moreover, the software can now independently change parameters such as the width of doors in order to improve escape routes. It can also simulate what would happen if a staircase or parts of a building become blocked, as was the case during the fire in Dubai. Crowd Control calculates alternative escape routes to circumvent such obstacles. During the third stage – the output phase – Crowd Control suggests a best case that shows how a building should be laid out in order to enable as many people as possible to quickly evacuate the premises.
Crowd Control can demonstrate its strengths especially well when it is used in combination with digital building planning. This trend in the construction industry is referred to as building information modeling (BIM). During the planning stage, BIM is used to create a 3D model of a building that contains all of the building’s elements. If changes are made to one of these elements, the software immediately makes any conflicts with other elements visible. It shows, for example, whether moving a wall would interfere with the planned location of pipes or cables. Crowd Control ideally complements BIM, because it can use existing building data and suggest improvements to BIM models with regard to evacuation.
Real-time Evacuation Support
In the future, Crowd Control will not only assist in the planning of buildings, but will also provide support during evacuations — and do so in real time. That’s because it could be supplied with building sensor data that would enable it to calculate the best escape route within fractions of a second “Crowd Control could use data from smoke detection systems to make evacuation recommendations and suggest safe exist paths,” says Christian Frey, who is responsible for innovation projects and patents at Siemens Building Technologies (BT). With the support of Crowd Control, a facility’s building management system could guide people to exits by making intercom announcements or displaying the best evacuation route on smartphone apps. It would also be possible to use sensors that recognize whether any people are trapped in a building and where they are located.
However, Crowd Control doesn’t just deal with buildings, but with their surroundings as well. “We can expand the simulation to incorporate entire building complexes the size of college campuses,” says Mayer. “This enables us to find out how structural measures can optimize the surrounding area for evacuations.” Crowd Control even makes recommendations as to where police vehicles and ambulances should be parked so that the flow of evacuees isn’t blocked.
CT’s Wolfram Klein and Hermann Mayer are also taking major disasters into account. Both are involved in the EU-funded ELASSTIC project, where they are working together with universities and research institutes to develop solutions that help protect buildings and their occupants against disasters such as earthquakes and floods. While some of the project’s partner organizations are optimizing building stability, for example, Klein and Mayer are working on emergency evacuation plans. For example, they have used Crowd Control to simulate floods that make underground garages fill with water. Such cases raise completely new issues, such as where safe collection points might be found or how helpers and rescue workers can reach flooded buildings to assist people. All of this information has been fed into Crowd Control. Says Wolfram Klein: “As a result, we now have a comprehensive evacuation simulation tool that is without parallel anywhere else.”