Jing “Eric” Du
First responders’ lives depend on their ability to navigate structures during a emergency — a task Jing “Eric” Du, Texas A&M assistant professor of construction science, aims to make easier and safer with wayfinding research funded by a $220,000 National Science Foundation grant.
“Every year, many firefighters are injured or die because they become lost in complex structures like hospitals and airports,” said Du, the study’s principal investigator. “There is an urgent need to help firefighters navigate these spaces in their missions.”
He will use virtual reality technology to help understand cognitive overload, which occurs when smoke, fire and stress combine to thwart a first responder’s sense of direction.
In collaboration with research partners at Northeastern University as part of a larger $420,000 NSF-funded project, Du will create a virtual reality model simulating a fire in a 12-story hospital including smoke, water leaks and explosions. College Station and Boston firefighters will perform virtual search and rescue missions in the simulation while their pulse, brain activities and other vital data are recorded to measure when cognitive overload occurs.
The project will result in an open-source wayfinding information system with an online course where users will be able to discover and improve their cognitive load limits and become better prepared for hazardous structure wayfinding.
The system can tailor the way spatial information is presented based on the real-time cognitive load of the user, measured by neurobiological and physiological data. It will also be personalized to what each person would see in the line of duty.
“The ultimate goal is to reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities and improve their mental health over the long term,” Du said.
The project is part of the National Science Foundation’s Big Ideas initiative, which encourages long-term research at the frontiers of science and engineering. By conducting fundamental research in disaster management information processing and engineering, Du’s project was recognized by the NSF as work that helps “harness the data revolution,” the NSF’s Big Idea for the development of a cohesive, federated, national-scale approach to research data infrastructure and the development of a 21st century, data-capable workforce.