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Body cameras and live streaming are taking search and rescue to the next generation

New digital tools developed and tested at Simon Fraser University have the potential to revolutionize wilderness search and rescue efforts.

Developed at the SFU School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), the RescueCASTR system equips rescuers with 360-degree body cameras that feed live video and photos back to a central command post.

Visiting scientist and graduate student Brennan Jones from the University of Calgary built the system, led by Carman Neustaedter from SIAT and Anthony Tang from the University of Toronto.

The system allows the search commander to keep tabs on multiple teams at once, coordinating efforts, and gaining on-the-spot visibility into wilderness conditions and clues.

“Our goal is to find ways to bridge the perspectives of command and field through new technologies and information streams,” says Jones.

Typically, wilderness search and rescue teams use radio, face-to-face briefings, text messages, drones, and paper forms to communicate and coordinate their efforts.

However, those working at the command post typically have little more than verbal communications and maps to rely on to understand what field teams may be experiencing on the ground.

For example, someone coordinating search teams taking command may not be aware that a path they have suggested on a map may be inaccessible because they cannot see the extent of damage to the site following a flood or were inflicted by a landslide.

RescueCASTR was designed to give command more implicit awareness of on-site events and conditions, which can lead to better decision-making during a search where time can be critical to a successful rescue.

The platform does this by sending teams onto the field, with at least one of their members wearing a body camera that regularly transmits live video or sequential photos on command, allowing them to view the footage live or explore past footage.

Rescue teams can also leave notes on photos of interest, and command can track the locations of field teams on a map along with a timeline view of their progress.

Back in the field, coordinators use an interactive program that combines all 3D map data, live streams from each field team, and a timeline of milestone events and photos to quickly track efforts on site and review video footage.

The work was conducted through participatory design approaches, in which Jones worked with local SAR teams across the Vancouver area, including interviewing them about their work practices and observing mock searches.

Once created, the system was evaluated by SAR members themselves during simulated search and rescue scenarios in the wild.

The findings were published earlier this month in the journal PACM on Human-Computer Interaction.

“Search and rescue operations take place throughout the year and are often vital. It is extremely important that SAR team members have ways to easily share information they come across in order to be productive in searching and locating missing persons in the wild,” says Neustaedter. “Our ongoing work explores new and innovative ways to use wearable cameras and drone technologies.”

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