Christoph Mertz, the principal project scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, started taking pictures of the hills overlooking Pittsburgh’s West End on his smartphone.
“Every day, for months, I was collecting images of these hillsides,” Mertz said. “I wanted to see if I could use these pictures as a way to predict the next landslide.”
For Mertz, Pittsburgh was a prime location for this work. In 2018, Allegheny County experienced an unprecedented number of landslides, resulting in damage to at least 131 properties. By the end of the year, PennDOT estimated that the cost to fix all of the county’s landslide-related damage was about $40 million. Not only does this amount look daunting, it seems wholly unanticipated. Last year, the City of Pittsburgh exceeded its allotted $1 million annual landslide remediation budget in just a few months. However, according to Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, 2018 wasn’t an outlier—it’s the new normal.