How Technology Is Changing The Way We React To Disasters Like The Mexican Earthquake

At 13:14 CDT on 19th September an earthquake struck Central Mexico, measuring at a magnitude of 7.1. It lasted for about 20 seconds. In that brief time more than 50 buildings were destroyed, while thousands of others suffered structural damage. Currently the death toll sits at 308 people. This comes just 12 days after the largest earthquake of 2017 struck Mexican state of Chiapas, at a magnitude of 8.1.

Luckily, technology is lending its hand in new ways to help deal with these natural disasters, the day following the earthquake NASA released a satellite map of Mexico city, highlighting the most damaged areas.

Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech/ESA/Copernicus/Google

“The color variations from yellow to red indicate increasingly more significant ground and building surface change,” NASA said in the statement. “The map should be used as guidance to identify damaged areas, and may be less reliable over vegetated areas.” The map has helped authorities coordinate rescue efforts more effectively than they would have been able to using conventional reporting methods — saving lives.

While Mexico sits atop one of the planet’s most seismically active areas, the worst earthquake in recent years was the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which demolished over 820,000 homes and killed almost 9,000 people. That year, $4.1bn was pledged to a relief fund, and as of 2017 only 12 percent of the money has been released and as of April only 20,889 homes have been rebuilt of the 820,000 needed. Many families have endured two years without shelter, and many make do with simple tents and improvised shacks.

As with NASA’s use of technology to more quickly identify the worst affected areas, new technologies may help countries like Nepal and Mexico accelerate their rebuilding and restructuring efforts to avoid the hardships and pains that occur when so many are left without shelter. Cazza, a Silicon Valley based company has designed and built the world’s first mobile crane-like 3D printer, called the X1. Capable of building houses, villas, shelters, in only 7 days, a few of these machines on the ground in affected areas could dramatically increase the speed in which people are sheltered.

The idea of 3D printing being used in construction isn’t new, robotic bricklaying was conceived of and investigated in the 1950’s, but it’s only this year that those seeds of inspiration have developed into practical applications. The idea that large spaces can be erected in only a week or two could potentially shelter hundreds of people, while still being usable in the future once rebuilding efforts are completed must be an attractive one to those in charge of organising the rebuilding efforts. The robots can also be easily manoeuvred on their tracks and moved to the next location. It’s cost effective, fast, and once the robots have been acquired they will be reusable for areas which frequently suffer disaster.

For those families in Nepal who have been without shelter for two years now, looking to technology to quicken the pulse of government bureaucracy may be their best hope of solid, permanent shelter in the next few years. While the technology is still in its infant stages the future may hold permanent solutions to these problems in the form of AI designed structures that would not be possible with traditional construction techniques. Designs that may be able to withstand the seismic activity of Mexico, or the hurricane areas of the USA, and relegate rebuilding efforts like those in Mexico to mere cosmetic touch-ups.

Investment in technology that can help speed up the rate of growth of these industries has the potential to solve the often disparate and onerous problems of the world. NASA’s idea to compare two images of Mexico City and accurately determine areas most affected is a simple yet novel approach that has saved lives. So, while millions still suffer the tragic consequences of these events every year, it’s an exciting idea that the future may hold a time when our technology allows us to mitigate or avoid them entirely. For now, government investment in new technologies seems to be the best hope for helping those affected.