When search and rescue cameras were first introduced in the early 1990s, they changed the way technical search specialists conducted operations in collapsed structures. It gave them the ability to view void spaces that were otherwise inaccessible. Since that time, image technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds, but search and rescue camera development over the same period appears to have stalled. Current technical search cameras contain an image sensor mounted in a housing that allows it to move left or right via a series of small servo motors attached to fine-pitch gears, drives, or pulleys. Simply place the camera into a void space and move the camera left and right, then, turn the camera body 90° so that the camera head is positioned to move up or down, and view the rest of the space. These movements require a certain amount of space within the void and in some cases, there’s just not enough room to manoeuvre the camera head in this way. The mechanics of the camera head has its drawbacks as well, and anyone who uses them regularly will tell you that the mechanical head is prone to breakage, expensive repairs and potentially lengthy periods where the equipment is out of service.
For the last few years, the development team at Agility Technologies has been hard at work engineering the next-generation urban search and rescue camera, a camera that is mobile integrated, contains no moving parts, is multipurpose and, incredibly important, reduces search times. This intensive effort has brought forward a multitude of technological advances in the miniaturization of electronics and the creation of proprietary software and firmware to create FirstLook360 (FL360). Its unique optical configuration provides a live streaming 360° spherical view that is controlled on a tablet running the FL360 app, which is the control centre of the system. The camera incorporates two-way audio communication, adjustable 360° on- board lighting, wired or wireless operation, live stream or still frame recording, time/ date/GPS location, mobile connectivity all built into a custom-moulded IP68 housing. The entire search is done by simply swiping one’s finger on the screen of the tablet to view the space.
Technically speaking, the images that the FL360 camera streams are an inner- sphere panorama view. To explain this, simply imagine taking pictures from the front, back, up, down left and right sides simultaneously then stitching them all together to cover the inside of a hollow globe. The viewer is then positioned in the centre of the globe and no matter where that person looks, the view would be represented like the inside of a hollow sphere. Now, substitute the person in the globe with the FL360 camera. Live images are transmitted wirelessly or wired to a tablet screen and by simply swiping left, right, up, down and/or using the pinch to zoom gestures you can look anywhere inside the space.
360° spherical imaging is a profound departure from what rescuers are accustomed to. Capturing not only what is in front of the person taking the picture but also the image of what surrounds them. This captures a fully immersive high-resolution image of a particular event at a given point in time. A single image recording can catalogue not only a snapshot of an object but also the interactive context in which it is situated. Observers of a recording after the fact can not only see what the operator is focused on but can also share in the experience of looking around at the surroundings or activities as if they were physically there. In operations following natural or man-made disasters – earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and bombings, time is a precious commodity for those who are trapped. The ability to see the entire space in seconds allows rescuers to search faster and more precisely. On-screen indicators built into the app give search specialists their viewing location which is incredibly important when instructing rescue personnel how to extricate the victim. Wireless streaming to the tablet, recorded images and recorded 360° video also allow rescuers to involve disaster experts such as doctors, medics and structural engineers for greater collaboration and cooperation.
Unlike technical search cameras built specifically for a single purpose, the FL360 was designed and engineered to maximize value and operate in multiple operational areas including USAR, hazmat, confined space, trench, high-angle, vehicle extrication, situational awareness, investigations and inspections. The sharing of information and addressing complex coordinated rescue missions make it a perfect tool for global rescue teams including all INSARAG-classified USAR teams.
Virtually every sector of today’s world is on the move toward a mobile integrated, interoperable connected communication infrastructure and it is happening quickly. So why is the rescue sector, arguably the sector that could benefit most from new capabilities, lagging behind when it comes to new tech search equipment? With the addition of 360° spherical imaging and the FL360 search and rescue camera the rescue community now has an entirely new life-saving technology, one that puts the ‘Tech’ back in Technical Rescue.
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