NIST Turns to Technology in its Technical Investigation of the Florida Condo Collapse

Crews work in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continues at the site of the partially collapsed condo building, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.

Crews work in the rubble of the Champlain Towers South building, as removal and recovery work continues at the site of the partially collapsed condo building, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Drones, 3D scanners, a data portal and more are supporting scientists in the disaster’s aftermath.

National Institute of Standards and Technology officials are on the ground in Surfside, Florida conducting a comprehensive technical investigation to determine what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium on June 24.

The investigators were deployed to the site the day after the 12-floor condo suddenly partially crumbled, and the agency announced its official fact-finding study within a week. Ultimately, those involved hope to help inform and improve the structural integrity of U.S. buildings. 

“For this investigation, NIST engineers and scientists use a variety of equipment, including lidars, drones, time-lapse cameras, 3D scanners and other technology to help determine where pieces of evidence were located in the debris pile,” Acting Director of NIST’s Public Affairs Office Jennifer Huergo told Nextgov Tuesday.

Drawing from recent discussions with those officials, she provided a glimpse into the tools and digital assets underpinning their examination. 

Tech Support

As of Monday, the death toll rose to more than 90, though some thought to be at the scene where a portion of the Miami-area-based beachfront condo fell around 1:30 a.m. that June morning are still unaccounted for. NIST’s work is coinciding but isn’t interfering with ongoing search, rescue and recovery operations. 

Before 2002, the principal responsibility for investigations into building failures wasn’t delegated to any federal entity—but that year, President George W. Bush signed the National Construction Safety Team, or NCST Act. The law authorizes NIST to send out expert teams after structural incidents that result in substantial loss of life or pose that potential. This marks the fifth investigation NIST is steering under that authority. Others honed in on the World Trade Center, the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, the Joplin, Missouri tornado and Hurricane Maria. That latter study remains ongoing.

For the latest case unfolding in Miami, the agency’s investigators intend to establish the likely technical cause or causes of the building’s failure and make recommendations regarding improvements to building standards codes and practices, as well as suggestions about future actions and research to ensure American structures are safe. To do so, they are capturing and analyzing information and material from the collapse site to better grasp the condo’s construction.

“There are millions of high-rise condominium units in Florida alone, many of them near the ocean or aging,” the agency’s release notes.

Huergo confirmed drones, 3D scanners and other advanced technologies are proving vital to the work, particularly in pinpointing evidence in the aftermath.

“This becomes especially important as there are many layers of debris, and we want to have a firm understanding of which pieces went where as we try to understand the factors that may have contributed to the collapse,” she explained. “Some of this equipment also helps determine sizes of elements.” 

NIST is also set to soon deploy an electronic evidence tagging system that uses radio-frequency identification, or RFID, chips. This, according to Huergo, will help ensure “that electronic records are associated with every piece of evidence collected.” 

As Long As It Takes

Another tech-driven tool—the disaster data portal—is also supporting NIST in this pursuit. 

“The data portal was developed to support our NCST investigations and other disaster and Failures Studies field studies,” Huergo confirmed. “It was designed for the types of data and information associated with our NCST investigation into Hurricane Maria, but was not publicly launched until June 2021.”

People with files, photos, videos or other documentation regarding the condo collapse are invited to upload them to the portal. NIST aims to limit the personally identifiable information it captures from contributors, and presently, only accepts data from original authors, creators and  copyright owners. 

The digital hub, Huergo said, streamlines processes to help guarantee “this valuable information is organized and maintained to enable study and analysis for the purpose of the investigation or field study.”

In the months to come, NIST’s team will provide the public with updates on the progress of this work at regular NCST Advisory Committee meetings. Still, the agency’s studies into such building failures are rife with complexities and typically unfold over multiple years before reaching completion.

“This effort will take time, but we will work on this as long as necessary,” James Olthoff, who is currently performing the duties of the undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and NIST director, said in a statement.