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First Responders Get Tech Help from AWS Edge Devices

After a tornado, wildfire, hurricane, or other disaster, it's crucial to quickly gather information so that help can be deployed where it's needed most. A specially equipped vehicle with AWS technology is helping.

As the 2022 hurricane season arrives, and other natural disasters such as wildfires, tornados, and more threaten to disrupt everyday life, too, first responders are preparing for the job ahead -- trying to gain a quick and comprehensive assessment of a difficult situation in the field and deploying help to the places that need it most urgently.

It’s not an easy job. Disasters breed panic. There’s incomplete information on the ground. Power and communications are frequently unreliable or completely non-existent -- taken down by the disaster. How do you help those with the most urgent and immediate need if you don’t know who or where they are?

With an eye to both demonstrating its edge technology and helping first-responder organizations in the vital role they play in disasters, AWS has assembled a practical toolkit to help. It comes in the form of a Jeep the company describes as “a rolling platform designed to build and test cloud-based tools that help first responders, humanitarian agencies, and victims during natural disasters.”

The vehicle was equipped as part of an initiative that began last year called the Field Test Exercise Program, according to Matt Johannessen, head of the AWS Disaster Response team. He says the team would go out in the field for a few days at a time with customers and partners starting last year to learn about what end-to-end capabilities were needed and could be provided.

What’s Inside?

Wayne Duso, VP of AWS Storage, Edge and Data Governance Services says that the team designed the Jeep to be able to power four AWS compute-optimized GPU Snowball edge devices. These devices are about the size of a suitcase and weigh under 50 pounds, he says. GPUs were chosen in this instance because so many of the emergency response workloads are imagery AI and machine learning.

These devices are configured to run AWS applications, but in a disconnected manner. Duso describes them as “the cloud in a box.”

The Jeep also includes a custom-built power supply to support the Snowball devices as well as a custom workstation built into the side of the vehicle. The Jeep also incorporates networking and telecommunications capabilities, such as Wi-Fi or 5G, which can be configured according to need. Another device called Snow Cone has all the same capabilities, but is ultra-mobile: about the size of a tissue box, and weighing less than 5 pounds. This device can be placed on a drone or in the backpack of a disaster relief worker.

(These devices are also available to commercial customers as a service. They are ordered and configured via the AWS console. Customers keep them for however long or short a time they are needed and then ship them back. An e-ink display on the device itself acts as the shipping label, which is updated when it’s time to return the device.)

“Some of these components change on a regular basis because it really is a rolling lab,” says Duso of the vehicle. “We’re constantly testing out new radio technologies and different components in the Jeep.”

Communications capabilities are crucial, because after disasters the existing communications infrastructure can be down for days or weeks or longer. Snowball edge devices can be configured with a private 5G capability to provide networking services to an impacted area to enable aid workers to communicate with one another in a dynamic environment, Duso says. In the case of 5G, a 5G antenna becomes part of the setup with the Snowball devices.

Creating a Map

But sometimes what is needed is just a lay of the land. In a different example, in the aftermath of a storm in Western Kentucky last year, the AWS vehicle was deployed, along with drones, to capture aerial photographs of the area. The compute resources helped stitch those images together. The team was able to help map over 2 square kilometers of an affected community.

“We are taking pictures of the ground very rapidly, following something like a hurricane or a tornado, then stitching all the images together in order to produce a current map of the affected area,” says Johannessen.

Such maps can be key to search-and-rescue operations and help organizations make decisions about where help is needed most and where it’s safest to relocate people, supplies, and temporary housing, according to AWS.

The Snowball and Snowcone devices support any AWS applications and technology natively, such as EC2 and S3, so that first responders can leverage multiple devices in the field, spreading the processing load across them all.

The setup in the field can enable first responders to communicate, collect data, and more in order to gather accurate information quickly.

“It lets people be able to connect to one another, collect information, make decisions, and be aware,” says Duso. “This is the purpose of the Snow family of products within the AWS hybrid edge set of offerings.”

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