Turner's plans

Mayor Turner recognized nationally for progress of moving Houston toward resiliency

Mayor Sylvester Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. Photo courtesy of The Ion

In the past five years, six federally declared flooding disasters have wreaked havoc in Houston — most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Now, you might say Houston stands tall as a hub of resilience when it comes to disaster preparedness and myriad other pressing issues.

The Texas chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored Mayor Sylvester Turner's Resilient Houston initiative as the top entry in the resilience category of the chapter's annual awards program. In addition, Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network.

With backing from Shell Oil Co., the City of Houston hired its first chief resilience officer, Marissa Aho, in 2019 and developed a multibillion-dollar resilience strategy to address threats from hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and climate change. The plan also seeks to boost the resilience of Houston's economy, neighborhoods and natural resources.

"Our efforts need to be bold, transformative, and aligned to achieve the outcomes Houstonians deserve," Turner said in unveiling the resilience plan in February. "Resilient Houston is a framework for transformative change that comes from thinking and acting together to build and grow Houston's long-term resilience. We will need our partners and every Houstonian at the table to achieve this vision."

Dallas and El Paso also have resilience plans in place.

Houston's resilience effort outlines a number of ambitious goals, such as:

  • Updating city building codes and standards by 2030 to reduce damage from disasters.
  • Attracting or incubating 50 Energy 2.0 companies in the Houston area by 2025.
  • Planting 4.6 million new native trees by 2030.
  • Building at least 375,000 homes in Houston for all income levels by 2050.
  • Providing all Houstonians with easy access to high-frequency public transportation by 2050.

As explained by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, hurricanes and floods are examples of "acute shocks" in terms of resilience. These are sudden, large-scale events that disrupt and endanger life. Other shocks include economic crisis, cyberattacks, terrorism, chemical disasters, and extreme heat.

The Kinder Institute points out that Houston's resilience strategy not only addresses these shocks but also takes on "chronic stresses" that hamper recovery from these shocks. Those stresses include poor air quality, health disparities, crime, economic inequality, urban sprawl, and limited access to education.

"Stresses do not impact every Houstonian the same way," says the institute, which helped develop the Resilient Houston project.

Startups participating in Houston's Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator are tackling many of the same challenges that Resilient Houston is. The accelerator's second cohort launched in April with six startups.

Funded by Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., the accelerator "is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," Christine Galib, director of the accelerator, said in an April release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

Houston's push for resilience meshes with Turner's new role as chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. The network is a global city-led nonprofit that aims to "empower cities to help them build a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all."

"The reach, achievements, and vision of the Resilient Cities Network are impressive. I'm honored to be part of an organization that supports the critical needs of vulnerable communities by implementing projects that address multiple shocks and stresses and are improving the lives of people," Turner says in a release.

Among other goals, the network strives to strengthen local economies and bolster local campaigns to combat climate change.

Supported by $1.8 million from Shell, the City of Houston joined the Resilient Cities Network in August 2018. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for Shell.

"A year after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians can clearly say we didn't let the storm get the best of us. Nevertheless, there's still work to be done across a wide range of challenges that we share as a community," Bruce Culpepper, who then was president and U.S. chairman of Shell, said in a 2018 release about his company's backing of Resilient Houston.

"Building long-term resiliency is much more than disaster response," Culpepper added. "It's about enabling the people of our city to thrive."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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