Project Owl combines drones, a high-stakes tech contest, and big ideas into a practical solution for one of the challenges that made it so difficult to help survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Bryan Knouse, Nick Feuer, Charlie Evans, Magus Pereira, and Taraqur Rahman are the members of the Project Owl team. They entered IBM’s 2018 Call for Code challenge, which asked participants to figure out ways to use open source computer code to help communities be more prepared for natural disasters.

Learning from Hurricane Maria

The team had followed events in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, seeing that the destruction of the telecommunications system had made a bad situation much worse. They developed a cloud-based incident management software system and small, waterproof devices which could communicate with the software. This simple, practical system provides a communication network even if electricity fails.

Their solution won the contest. Among other awards, they received $200,000 to take their idea to Puerto Rico and test it. IBM experts traveled with them to Puerto Rico and worked with Governor Rossello, several mayors, and many community members to bring Project Owl to life.

Testing in the real world

With the software in place, the team made 65 devices about the size of a phone and used Velcro to attach them to trees and other existing places in San Juan, Loiza, Dorado, Isabela, and Comerio.

The devices are small and lightweight. In plastic cases inspired by rubber ducks, they can float. Just five of these devices, called “ducks,” are needed to cover a full square mile. The simplicity and versatility of the devices means that they are likely to work out even in extreme situations. If only trees are available, they can stay in the trees. If they fall from the trees, they can float nearby until they are found by people who need them.

When survivors find the devices, they can communicate with the Owl — the cloud-based software. The software automatically asks questions that help first responders pinpoint the duck’s location and identify the needs of the people with the duck.

Between the ducks and the Owl, a communication network came together. IBM’s Code and Response initiative is supporting the effort. The tests showed that the networks can be built quickly when they’re needed, and start helping people right away.

Adding drones

Project Owl then collaborated with Call for Code Puerto Rico Hackathon winner Pedro Cruz, creator of DroneAid, a visual communication system that allows drones to convey messages from disaster victims to a central location. Adding the drones for aerial oversight made Project Owl even more effective.

DroneAid was inspired by the messages survivors of Hurricane Maria scrawled on roofs and roads. An efficient system designed to work with drones, DroneAid can make this communication systematic instead of relying on luck.

The team was excited to find that the communities where they tested their system immediately recognized the value of their solution. People who had been through Hurricane Maria could see that Project Owl would work in similar situations.

Now the team’s highest priority is getting the system to communities in Puerto Rico before the next hurricane.

The 2019 Challenge



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