11:36 AM

Preventing Landslides

CAP Helps Collect Topographical Data for Research Project

By Russell Slater
Contributing Writer

Members of Civil Air Patrol’s New Mexico Wing have been involved in developing a new device designed to help prevent debris flows before they occur. By collecting topographical data, those behind the project hope to save lives and properties at the highest risk.

Destructive Flows

Whether triggered by earthquakes or flooding following fire, landslides can prove catastrophic to those in their path. The combination of scorched earth and rain is capable of setting off large debris flows as terrain gives way to gravity.

Dixon Apple Orchard, New Mexico’s most famous orchard, fell victim to fire, flooding and landslide in 2011. The family-owned operation was destroyed in the wake of the Las Conchas Fire and subsequent massive flash floods that destroyed buildings and encased the property in mud. The owners lost their home and most of their personal possessions; they were forced to close their business.

In addition to property loss, landslides can also be extremely deadly. According to a report from International Landslide Centre at Durham University (UK) geographer David Petley, 32,322 people lost their lives in 2,620 fatal landslides from 2004-2010.

CAP Assists with Solution

The New Mexico Wing has been working with a professor from the University of New Mexico and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque District in developing and testing a new tool designed to mitigate potential landslides. Assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Chris Lippitt and his research group, GIScience for Environmental Management, are behind the creation of a device that attaches to aircraft and can help determine areas most at risk for slides.

Lippitt said, “The project is in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is seeking to map changes in the topography following large-scale fires and rain events to aid in their mitigation of large-scale mass wasting events, which are similar to a landslide, but down a channel.”

Meanwhile, “our role has primarily been focused on the operations and logistics side,” said Capt. Tom Billstrand, operations officer for the New Mexico Wing’s Albuquerque Senior Squadron II. “We have met with the University of New Mexico and Army Corps of Engineers and provided advice on local airspace and technical details.”

Detailed aerial images of washes and canyons collected by the device are processed into detailed 3D models of the surface using super high-resolution images. Along with other data, the images give researches a clear picture of how a fire or flood can change the terrain across large areas.

By figuring out where those areas of significant soil loss are located, preventive measures can be applied more accurately. This method and technology could help prevent major property damage or loss of life to New Mexico residents, as well as others in high-risk areas.

Lippitt’s team has used state-of-the-art technology to build its device and has tapped the New Mexico Wing for planes, pilots and aircrews to assist in testing.

Emergency management personnel and engineers can use the information presented in the surface models to help determine what areas most need reinforcement. The Army Corps of Engineers can erect barricades at those locations.

“From standard single-lens reflex cameras, we generate detailed models of the surface and color-infrared image products that can be used to see where vegetation has been lost and where new channels are beginning to form,” Lippitt said.

“The idea is to fly immediately following fires and then immediately after the first major rain so that we can tell the volume of material that has been lost to the channel, which the Corps can use for mitigation efforts in the affected area and downstream.”

Future Potential

As the initial testing ground, New Mexico may lead the way in the groundbreaking deployment of the sophisticated devices for the rest of the nation. Once fully developed and replicated, they could be attached to CAP planes wherever the need may arise in a short period of time. Depending on future regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones), such craft may also use the device to help monitor the terrain of remote fire- or flood-prone areas.

“Working with the academic community and the Army Corps of Engineers in the development of cutting-edge technology has been an honor for the New Mexico Wing,” said Col. Mike Lee, wing commander. “Even though the technology has a primary purpose for homeland security, cross-academic disciplines are discovering new applications for the system.

“We may see CAP working with archaeologists discovering and surveying Native American and other historical sites.”

The Albuquerque squadron’s Billstrand added, “It is always interesting to participate in the application of new technology to expand and enhance the missions available to the Civil Air Patrol.

“Development of the device has come about through the hard work of many individuals, including specialists and professionals, working together for the common goal of saving money, property and lives.”