Anoto Technologies
Anoto Technologies' infrared digital pen records the movements it makes on any of several thousand printable patterns.
Anoto Technologies

After trying their options, contractors supporting federal responders in a recent disaster mission say infrared digital pens are the most useful tool for rapidly collecting and distributing massive amounts of damage-assessment data.

“Using the pen has cut the time it takes to collect and distribute our field data by 85%,” says William Spiking, a geographic information systems specialist for Tetra Tech Inc., Pasadena, Calif. Spiking manages a team that provides technical assistance to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team (START), which assesses damage from natural disasters and technological hazards. “The sooner we can get the field data to site coordinators, the better,” adds Spiking.

In May, the START team gathered damage-assessment data following the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo. Using the pens significantly speeded up the work, Spiking says.

Although not a new technology, the digital pens from Anoto Technologies, Lund, Sweden, were well suited for the team's needs, Spiking notes. The pen works by writing on forms printed over a nearly invisible, 600-dpi background pattern. Each page has a unique pattern registered to each form.

When the pen touches a paper form, it registers the background pattern on that sheet of paper in that location and records not only the words the user writes but where on the form the words are written. Once the pen is docked at a computer, the handwritten notes are transformed into digital data that is assigned to the appropriate fields on the form. Handwritten notes are automatically converted into text with optical character-recognition software.

Spiking has equipped previous START teams with PDAs and laptops for such data collection, but he says those devices required a lot of maintenance and training. By contrast, he says, “the pen takes 10 minutes to explain how to use.”

START began testing the digital pen two years ago and has increased its use over time, finally settling on the device for the Joplin tornado response. The only problem Spiking has with the technology is that his workers keep losing the pen caps, he says.