U.S. Satellite Plans Falter, Imperiling Data on Storms

27 06 2013

The article below was published in The New York Times on October 26, 2012.  Though a bit dated it will provide you with a good understanding of the importance of satellite technology to protect citizens from weather related hazards.  The author of the article was John H. Cushman, Jr.  Though the article was written several months ago, the threat of a diminishing satellite system for capturing storm data is still significant.  Effective hazard mitigation does not happen magically; it requires thorough planning efforts based on accurate data.

The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.

The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast early next week.

The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.

All this week, forecasters have been relying on such satellites for almost all the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: hit the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Right on schedule, the five-day models began to agree on the likeliest answer. By Friday afternoon, the storm’s center was predicted to approach Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, with powerful winds, torrential rains and dangerous tides ranging over hundreds of miles.

New York and other states declared emergencies; the Navy ordered ships to sea to avoid damage. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City warned that no matter where or when the storm landed, the city would not escape its effects. And from the Carolinas to New England, public safety officials were urgently advising tens of millions of residents to prepare for the worst, including the possibility of historic flooding, power failures and snow.

Experiments show that without this kind of satellite data, forecasters would have underestimated by half the huge blizzard that hit Washington in 2010.

“We cannot afford to lose any enhancement that allows us to accurately forecast any weather event coming our way,” said Craig J. Craft, commissioner of emergency management for Nassau County on Long Island, where the great hurricane of 1938 killed hundreds. On Thursday, Mr. Craft was seeking more precise forecasts for Sandy and gearing up for possible evacuations of hospitals and nursing homes, as were ordered before Tropical Storm Irene last year. “Without accurate forecasts it is hard to know when to pull that trigger,” he said.

Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launch of the next replacement, known as J.P.S.S.-1, has slipped to 2017, probably too late to avoid a coverage gap of at least a year.

Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite program’s managers are just beginning to think through alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

This summer, three independent reviews of the $13 billion program — by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a team of outside experts — each questioned the cost estimates for the program, criticized managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program “dysfunctional.”

In response, top Commerce and NOAA officials on Sept. 18 ordered what they called an urgent restructuring — just the latest overhaul of the troubled program. They streamlined the management, said they would fill major vacancies quickly and demanded immediate reports on how the agency planned to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the J.P.S.S.-1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete a new independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.

Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, said in a statement that the agency’s top priority was to provide timely, accurate forecasts to protect the public, and that it would continue to develop and update plans to cover any potential gap.

The under secretary of commerce responsible for NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, issued the memorandum ordering the changes. In it, she wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”

“It is a long, sad history,” said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council. The report projected a dismal decline in what has been a crown jewel of modern earth and atmospheric science.

The Joint Polar Satellite System also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk.

But its main satellites are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature and the like into what is known as the “polar p.m.” orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of global weather patterns. (Other satellites stare continuously at one part of the globe from farther off, for short-term forecasting.)

Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy.

For years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA’s p.m. polar satellites have been a crucial factor, like the center on a basketball team.

But all the while, despite many warnings, the coverage gap has grown ever more likely.

The department told Congress this summer that it could not come up with any way to launch J.P.S.S.-1 any sooner. Kathryn D. Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce, said it would “endeavor to maintain the launch date as much as practicable.”

The Government Accountability Office, which views a gap as “almost certain,” has been urging NOAA to come up with alternatives, like leaning on other commercial, military or government satellites for helpful data. But it said it would take a long time and more money to get any such jury-rigged system running.

For now, the agency is running on a stopgap bill that allows it to redirect money from other projects to the polar satellites. In approving it, Congress demanded a plan by next week showing how NOAA intended to stay on schedule and within a strict limit — about $900 million a year.

“NOAA does not have a policy to effect consistent and reliable cost estimates,” the Commerce inspector general said. The outside review team said it could not tell “if the current $12.9 billion is high, low, or exactly correct.”

The program’s problems began a decade ago with an effort to merge military and civilian weather satellites into a single project. After its cost doubled and its schedule slipped five years, that project was sundered by the Obama administration.

As its existing satellites aged and the delays mounted, NOAA finally put a new model named Suomi into orbit a year ago that now helps bridge the gap until the next launchings, in 2017 and in 2022 — two and four years late, respectively.

But there are lingering concerns that technical glitches have shortened Suomi’s useful lifetime, perhaps to just three years. Predicting a satellite’s lifetime is like trying to guess when a light bulb will go out. The most likely timing of a gap in coverage is between 2016 and 2018, according to the best official estimates.

That would “threaten life and property,” the independent review team warned.





Are Drones a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

12 12 2012

The following article was first published in Governing magazine, and then later in Emergency Management magazine.  Written by Eli Richman, and published by Emergency Management on November 30, 2012, the article provides an overview of the use of drones by emergency responders in the United States.  It is becoming apparent that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can assist law enforcement agencies in a variety of activities.  As pointed out in the article, perhaps it could be helpful in finding a lost hiker in a national forest.  Closer to home, perhaps a drone could have been used a few years ago when local responders attempted to find a missing kayaker lost on a stream in Fort Bend County?

Drone owned by Montgomery County TexasFire first responders could use such a tool also; perhaps for getting a birds-eye view of a hazardous materials incident or major fire.  Think about how valuable the use of such equipment might be as hundreds of responders attempt to fight a raging wildfire in close proximity to a subdivision.  Emergency managers could use an unmanned aerial vehicle for conducting damage assessments after a hurricane.  It would seem to be an efficient way of getting needed information without putting responder lives at risk.  As a matter of fact, it has recently become known that NASA is readying a couple of experimental UAVs to track future storms.  Why?  To assist communities in preparing for the storms.  

For more information on NASA’s use of drones:   http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/10/hurricane-hunters/

But, the use of drones is not without controversy.  Many individuals have privacy concerns, thinking that use of such equipment is confirmation that “Big Brother” lives and is trying to gain personal information from innocent citizens.  In addition, some politicians have indicated that the purchase of drones with homeland security monies is a suspect expenditure.  Hopefully, any legislation related to government’s use of drone technology will incorporate logical regulations that will still allow first responders to use UAVs for saving lives, arresting criminals, and assisting responders to extinguish fires.

No jurisdiction within Fort Bend County owns a drone.  As you will note in Mr. Richman’s article, Montgomery County does have a drone in their equipment inventory.  What does Fort Bend County do when we need to get a birds-eye view?  Probably, the first request would be to the Houston Police Department; we would request for assistance from one of Houston’s police helicopters.  Another possibility, would be utilizing the Civil Air Patrol (CAP); today, Texas has 3500 volunteer members who are active in Civil Air Patrol.  CAP is an outstanding resource for conducting inland search and rescue missions.  And, of course, contacting Montgomery County, and requesting mutual aid assistance would be another option.  Over the last several years, counties in the Houston area collaborate closely in matters of emergency response.

So, to give you an overview of this topic, please read the attached article.  It provides a balanced viewpoint on the issue of using drones.  If you have any thoughts on the subject, please feel free to make a comment on the blog site.

 

Drones:  The Future of Law Enforcement?

Eli Richman

Law enforcement officials say that’s not their intention, and they couldn’t use drones that way even if they wanted to. “We did not obtain this for the purpose of surveillance,” says McDaniel. “Our ShadowHawk’s maximum aloft time is only two hours and 20 minutes, and you would never fly it for that length of time to begin with.” FAA regulations prohibit drones from flying higher than 400 feet, and they require that drones remain in line of sight of the user. In other words, says McDaniel, if a drone’s around, you’ll know it. “It’s not like its 30,000 feet up in the air and you can’t see it and you can’t hear it. It’s going to be visible to the naked eye, and you’re certainly going to hear it.”

Current drone technology may not lend itself to stealth surveillance, but that’s why privacy legislation should be passed now, before it becomes a problem, say advocates. “While drones are new and novel and everybody’s worried about the privacy issue,” says Stanley, “we need to put in place some farseeing rules and protections that will cover every possible evolution of this technology.”

So far, no state has passed legislation regulating drones, although New Jersey took a preliminary step in June by introducing a bill that outlined warrant procedures for law enforcement’s use of drones. In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft. The guidelines call for transparency in how the vehicles are used, and say that any images captured by aerial drones and retained by police should be open to the public. In cases where drones might collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing, or if they will intrude on reasonable expectations of privacy, guidelines suggest police should obtain a prior search warrant. Those instructions aren’t binding, but they’re a good start, privacy advocates say.

At the federal level, the ACLU has recommended that government use of drones be banned except in very specific cases. One piece of legislation has been introduced in Congress by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, which would ban domestic governmental drone use except in patrolling the border or in high-risk security situations. The bill currently lacks bipartisan support. While the ACLU says the bill isn’t perfect, its legislative counsel Chris Calabrese says the bill is “starting in the right place, and we’re going to work with him as he moves forward.”

In addition to questions about privacy, another concern is drones’ security. First, there’s the immediate worry that comes from allowing individually operated aircraft in domestic airspace, particularly in a post-9/11 world. That concern was borne out last year, when a man in Massachusetts was thwarted after attempting to equip several drones with C4 explosives and fly them into the Capitol and Pentagon. Second, civilian drones can be hacked, or “spoofed,” by a counterfeit GPS signal. (Unlike military GPS signals, civilian signals are not encrypted.) The spoofed drone thinks it’s in a different place, allowing the hacker to take rudimentary control of it. In a demonstration in June, the University of Texas’ Humphreys led a team of researchers who successfully hacked into one drone’s navigation system.

Regulating this type of vehicle typically would fall under the purview of Homeland Security, but that department has so far declined to regulate the UAV industry. That’s a major problem, says Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management. “I find this to be a bit of a ‘nobody’s minding the store’ type scenario,” McCaul says. “No federal agency’s willing to step up to the plate, and when you have the [Government Accountability Office] saying the DHS needs to do it, I tend to agree with them.” Without regulation at the federal level, security oversight could fall to individual states.

For his part, Humphreys says he’s not overly worried about drone security. Spoofing a UAV requires a high level of expertise and very expensive software. But as with the privacy issues, it’s an issue that almost certainly will be exacerbated as technology advances. “What my nightmare scenario would be,” he says, “is looking forward three or four years, where we have now adopted the UAVs into the national airspace without addressing this problem. Now the problem is scaling up, so that we have more heavy UAVs, more capable UAVs and yet this particular vulnerability isn’t addressed.”

There’s no question that unmanned aerial vehicles could forever change crime fighting, disaster response and a host of other functions. Given the push from the federal government, it seems inevitable that drones will increasingly be a part of police assets around the country. But it’s important to address concerns over privacy and security now, says Humphreys. “Let’s let it go ahead,” he says. “But let’s be vigilant.”