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Posted 12/11/2012

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By Megan Holland
Engineering Research and Development Center

In Detroit, Mich., vacant and abandoned homes are a major problem.  After losing a quarter of its population between 2000 and 2010, the city is estimated to have 40,000 such properties that are a breeding ground for criminal activity and create safety hazards, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.  Now, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) technology is helping the city clean up.

ERDC’s Mobile Information Collection Application (MICA) software was originally fielded during the historic May 2011 Mississippi River flood to digitally capture vital field data and send it directly to emergency command centers.  This allowed much quicker response time and eliminated hours of paperwork and data input.  Also eliminated?  The need to carry a backpack full of equipment.  The software comes loaded on a Smartphone and uses standard camera, GPS, compass, WiFi and computer processing capabilities.

“Fifty Android phones with ERDC’s MICA software were deployed to seven flood-affected cities, resulting in more than 12,000 pictures, videos and notes that were transmitted from the field directly to command centers, along with the latitude and longitude for each piece of information,” said Robert Walker, MICA lead developer and a computer scientist for ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory (ITL).  “Following the success of that mission, we quickly realized that this technology could be easily adapted to fit any mission simply by changing the software’s categories.”

Enter Detroit.

Using MICA, the city’s fire department is cataloguing vacant homes for demolition.  The data also gives them the added bonus of knowing whether or not a home is vacant or abandoned when responding to a fire call (the homes account for 80 percent of all fires, and advanced knowledge can be the key to safety), and the ability to one day connect the data to existing utility and land/property record databases.

Detroit officials were introduced to MICA following a recommendation from a consultant who works for both ITL and Michigan and thought the technology was a perfect fit for their needs.  Only eight days after that initial conversation, 65 phones were up and running and ERDC experts flew to Michigan for a one-day training course in how to use the program.

The phones were purchased by the city and the program is fully self-sustainable.  ERDC experts are available if questions arise, but do not need to be involved in day-to-day use.

“MICA is made to solve a variety of problems instead of being laser-focused on only one issue,” said James Pettitt, MICA lead developer and a computer scientist in ITL.  “The software demonstrates the ability of technology to continually improve quality of life and job ease in many areas of data collection, and I’d like to see this expand into as many fields as possible, both civilian and military.”

The goal of expansion has quickly become a reality.  In addition to the Detroit Fire Department, Jacksonville District is testing MICA as part of wetlands restoration projects, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has requested multiple MICA demonstrations for potential use in bridging the data gap between federal, state and local authorities.

USACE is considering MICA for a variety of missions including real estate inspections, debris removal and the ice and water mission, which supplies bagged ice and water during disaster and emergency situations.  Pittsburg District plans to use the technology for emergency management, having just received a kit from ERDC’s Reachback Operations Center.

On the military side, ERDC researchers sent phones loaded with MICA to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a trial run and feedback from cadets.  The report was positive, with the cadets indicating significant time would be saved during standard military procedures.  Though Smartphones aren’t currently approved for day-to-day Department of Defense (DoD) use (something MICA creators are working to change), ERDC does have a loan system for those who cannot purchase their own phones.

“The potential for this system is truly unlimited,” Walker said.  “It’s the first project of my career that has been given this level of attention to detail.  We wanted to put out a product that thought of all the weak points – offline data collection, offline mapping, cheap/easy to acquire hardware, minimal training, adaptable, etc.  And we’ve done that.”

The cutting-edge technology has garnered nationwide recognition.  The technology was recently named winner of the 2012 USACE Innovation of the Year Award, an honor given for saving a million dollars in infrastructure and flood-fighting costs during the 2011 Mississippi River mission.  The award also cited the significant improvement in USACE response time thanks to MICA, and stated the technology is “poised to revolutionize USACE by transforming the manual processes into a completely digital process.”

“This win shows that Smartphones are important for the future of USACE and DoD,” Pettitt said.  “We need this technology to be better integrated into our infrastructure, so applications such as MICA can be easily used by those it would benefit.  The future of Smartphones and MICA is bright and I look forward to seeing just how far they can go.”

“The innovation award was a big honor for us,” Walker said.  “Now we want to introduce MICA to as many people as possible.  This technology can help with day-to-day requirements while saving millions of dollars, not to mention helping to keep our first responders out of harm’s way.  I feel like we haven’t even skimmed the surface of what this technology can do.  MICA is filling a need that was previously untouched.”

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