News | Jun 21, 2017

Inspired by burn pits, real-time atmospheric monitoring and modeling could save lives

Montana company secures license for Army technology, plans wide-ranging applications for first responders, petroleum industry

News Article Image of Inspired by burn pits, real-time atmospheric monitoring and modeling could save lives

Federal, state and local agencies respond to the scene of a train derailment near Mosier, Ore., on the Columbia River, June 3, 2016. The 100-car train reportedly carrying crude oil derailed causing a fire that closed down Interstate 84. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read)

When Gail Vaucher thinks about the future of emergency management, she imagines decision-makers facing forest fires, chemical attacks, and train derailments with near-instant information on local weather conditions.

Vaucher is a research meteorologist at the Army Research Laboratory in New Mexico. And she’s the lead inventor of the Local-Rapid Evaluation of Atmospheric Conditions (L-REAC) system.

“If there was a train wreck and a noxious chemical was spilled releasing a highly toxic vapor around the wreck, this technology would help first responders best direct an evacuation,” Vaucher said.

The L-REAC’s meteorological sensors feed data into a 3-D wind and plume modeling software. It also incorporates data on surrounding terrain and nearby structures. The result is a near real-time graphic visualization of the swirling flow around buildings, and an overlapping gradient concentration of the airborne hazardous materials.

Users can identify safe escape routes and initiate a hazmat response. The system has already been tested, proven during a forest fire, and is operating at an Army garrison.

“It’s important to us to keep our soldiers and their working conditions safe. This technology was designed based on need,” said Vaucher, citing the adverse health effects of burn pits in Iraq as the project’s motivation.

Weather monitoring tower to support Local-Rapid Evaluation of Atmospheric Conditions system technology

Army Research Laboratory personnel erect a weather monitoring tower on top of the Army Research Laboratory building on White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The Local-Rapid Evaluation of Atmospheric Conditions system currently uses transportable towers like these, but it’s hoped that more mobile versions can be integrated as well. (Army Research Laboratory photo)

On June 9, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) licensed the technology to Diamond B Technology Solutions in Billings, Montana.

Diamond B has customers in the oil and gas industry and thinks a stationary L-REAC system will pair well with their software product (ProCertX) that tracks the training and location of personnel at production facilities, transportation terminals, and refineries.

The company believes the mobile L-REAC system would also prove valuable in the transportation sector. “Railroads have safely provided transportation of hazardous materials for many years but due to the recent Shale oil boom there has been an increased community focus on rail safety due to the amount of crude oil being transported by rail,” said Scott Roller, Diamond B’s vice-president of technology. “We’d love to have a version of this that allows them to tip up a sensor in an emergency and have it communicate with the cloud that would allow first responders to receive real-time safety evacuation plume models.”

The company also believes that police, firefighters, and the National Guard will want to have L-REAC kits to deploy in emergencies.

“This system fills a need that multiple industries lack in their response to an airborne release,” said Eric Sharpe, Diamond B’s consultant who found the L-REAC listed on TechLink’s website. “Once it gains a little traction it’s going to become a necessity—especially for the chemicals industry, but also forestry, and oil and gas. The current response model to hazardous airborne release is lacking real-time data. It’s a guessing game when first responders show up to a chemical spill or a fire.”

The team at Diamond-B will continue developing the system and are excited to also sign a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the Army, Roller said. The CRADA allows them to continue research and development with Vaucher’s help, including design of a lightweight version for use by military groups to detect chemical weapons.

“The CRADA that we are currently in the process of establishing with Diamond-B will allow improvements to the technology,” said Jason Craley, a technology transfer specialist with the ARL Technology Transfer and Outreach Office. “ARL will certainly gain from this and so will Diamond B.”

CRADAs are an excellent way for both sides to leverage outside scientific or engineering resources, Craley said, and can provide the extra help sometimes needed to develop a technology’s commercial market.

The deal was assisted by TechLink, a Department of Defense nonprofit partner also in Montana. Dan Swanson, TechLink’s senior technology manager, said the agreement was the first ever negotiated through express licensing, a novel online process built in partnership with the Army Research Laboratory.

“We’re so pleased to see an Army technology that could save lives get into the hands of a solid company like Diamond-B,” Swanson said. “But we’re also really excited to see that express licensing can cut down the paperwork and procedural times. It’s like a trifecta for the taxpayer’s investment in military research.”

TechLink’s Chandra Morris contributed to this report. Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

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