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U prof develops software to plan evacuations

The software can plan evacuation routes for hundreds of thousands of people.

A University of Minnesota professor is looking for buyers for his route evacuation planning software.

The evacuation route planning and large event transportation software, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, can plan evacuation routes for crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in minutes, University computer science professor Shashi Shekhar said.

Evacuation routes are difficult to plan because the numbers of people who have to move usually far exceed the capacity of the transportation network, Shekhar said.

Shekhar said it can take more than a minute for an evacuation of more than 100,000 people to be planned out by the software, but the actual compute time depends on the number of people who are trying to leave and how far they must travel.

The software also factors in the concept of contraflow, in which both traffic lanes are conformed to move in one direction to optimize flow.

The evacuation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have benefitted from the software, said Andrew Morrow, marketing manager for the Office of Technology Commercialization.

During the evacuation of New Orleans, only the outbound lanes were used while the lanes into the city were almost empty.

“The idea is to flip the direction of traffic so all lanes go in the same direction,” Shekhar said.

The software was tested in a virtual evacuation scenario of a nuclear power plant failure in Monticello, Minn. The software managed to decrease evacuation time by 40 percent when compared to existing plans.

“The software showed us that if you use its routes, you can detect key choke points and relieve them and thereby reduce evacuation time,” Shekhar said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security already requires most communities to be prepared for emergency scenarios, most of which are related to terrorism, and roughly half require evacuations, Shekhar said. But he sees other uses for his software.

The evacuation software can be used in an event like the state fair or a major sporting event, Shekhar said.

In Minnesota, Homeland Security and Emergency Management is responsible for planning evacuation routes, said Doug Neville, spokesman for HSEM.

While plans are already in place for many possible evacuation scenarios, if an evacuation route had to be modified, a human element would be used to determine the best evacuation route in a situation. The software would speed this up.

“YouâÄôre talking minutes, youâÄôre not talking hours for [the engineers] to figure out exactly what the safest routes are,” Neville said.

Morrow hopes the software will one day be able to aid civil engineering. He hopes either a start-up will license the software or that another software company that caters to civil engineers and city planners will purchase the software and sell it as part of a package.

“WeâÄôre thinking that as this becomes more of an important component to a civil engineerâÄôs tool shed, it will become a higher priority to get it,” Morrow said. “Until then, weâÄôll keep it until it has a licensee.”

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