A Close Look at CBRNE Danger
© 2012 FrontLine Security (Vol 7, No 1)

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Situational awareness is crucial in a CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, Nuclear and/or Explosive) incident. 

Instrument View displays live images and data, and replays data stored from a database.

First responders must quickly identify the type, location and extent of a threat before they can deal with it. Small security robots equipped with detectors can provide pieces of the incident puzzle but human operators have struggled to make sense of the data they receive for rapid assessments, they need pictures, not numbers. A new Canadian system, the CBRN Crime Scene Modeller (C2SM) goes one better.

Along with the video, images and data streamed from the robot 'platform', it provides computer-generated, three-dimensional images of a remote scene, along with 'tagged' data that allows operators to drill down into what they are 'seeing' on their computer screens.

Development of the C2SM has been a team effort, including RCMP Ottawa, the CBRNE Research and Technology Initiative led by the Defence R&D Canada - Centre for Security Science, the Hamilton, Toronto and Vancouver police services, the Canadian Police Research Centre, York University's Department of Computer Science and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA).

Piotr Jasiobedzki, an MDA scientist explains: "Our system creates a planar map in real time, a floor map of the building, and shows the locations of the threats. In addition to the planar representation of the scene, with attached information, we have special cameras that we use to collect stereo images that allow us to build up photorealistic three-dimensional models."

2D View - visualization of traversed paths and locations of measurements.

Inside the 3D model, the operator can see all the objects and take measurements to design subsequent operations. "For example, the operator can measure the distance between a suspicious package and different access points to the room, to decide the best way to position an extractor, or additional measuring equipment." The photorealism of the scene provides an almost immersive experience, so they can look into a specific location and gather additional information and all the measurements from the CBRNE detectors that are placed in the same 3D environment.

Until now, operating robots inside a building tested the operators' intuition and memory because GPS signals can be lost. "Inside the building, it is the task of the operator to figure out where he or she is at any given time, because of the robot's lack of a location system, and they rely on the images that are streaming live to their workstations and on the measurements of the detectors," Jasiobedzki says. That system forces operators to remember what was measured and where - which can be a complicated and confusing task. Even when data is captured and stored to media, access is difficult if the operator has to rewind images and search data. "C2SM allows the security robot to geolocate inside buildings, without reliance on GPS, and send the source of the information that is captured by the CBRNE detectors and all the images from all cameras to a database. All that information is time-stamped and geolocated." Information is transmitted in near real time to the operator's station and displayed on screen. "Once it is in the database, operators can see the images they captured five minutes ago or look at sensor measurements that were performed at specific locations inside the building."

3D View visualization of a photorealistic model of scene of interest with local CBRN measurements

The main focus of the C2SM project was the creation of 3D representations of the unknown, investigated environments and the graphic representation of information to the end user. Along the way, they realized that the large amounts of time and processing power were required to build up the 3D models, so they redefined the concept of operations to allow operators to decide whether to focus in a location to collect and process more information, or to travel quickly through an uninteresting scene where nothing of importance is happening.

From its inception, the C2SM project was designed to deliver that kind of operational value to First Responders. "We actually started the project with a field trial, which sort of sounds counter-intuitive, because you don't always start a project without anything to test, but we realized that we didn't know enough about the First Responders procedures and operations," Jasiobedzki explains.

The project started with training exercises organized by Toronto Police Services' CBRNE group. Participants observed the response. "At the same time we brought two prototypes of our early systems to this trial and we demonstrated them to police. After the first trial we had a long discussion where we talked about the direction of the whole project."

The C2SM team kept the same approach during the whole project, holding regular field tests and trails of different prototypes every four to six months. The team was able to demonstrate progress to the first responders, and observe them using the system. "The challenges they had with early prototypes gave us insights into what we should do. After each trial, we had debriefing sessions where we spent half a day or a day discussing the limitations of the current prototype and possibilities for future development. They told us what they needed and we told them what could be done," Jasiobedzki said.

In the latest stage of the project, scientists and engineers built multiple rugged prototypes suitable for deployment and delivered them to First Responder partners in the project. "Those systems are now being used in internal training, so what we hope is that the end users will send us enough information that we can enter the commercial marketplace with a substantial product."

Richard Bray is the Senior Writer at FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2012