Digital duck crossing

Natural disaster relief technology records a successful pilot program just outside of Houston

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl (organization, whereabouts, and logistics), says the initiative marries:

  • A deployable IoT network of DuckLink devices that can quickly provide a basic WiFi setup where communications infrastructure might be down, like a region where a hurricane just hit. A single device can connect through WiFi to smartphones and laptops.
  • A software data visualization platform that speeds up and simplifies data monitoring on the Clusterduck network.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Knouse tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

"Once this network of ducks is deployed and then clustered, civilians are able to basically get on the devices through a really intuitive interface and contact first responders with a list of things that are really essential to them," Project Owl team member Magus Pereira explained in an October 2018 blog post.

Project Owl, which won IBM's Call for Code Global Challenge in 2018, is being developed by Code and Response, an IBM program that puts open source technologies in communities that most need them. Knouse and Houston software engineer Charlie Evans lead Project Owl.

In a June 6 blog post, Evans recalled the widespread damage his hometown suffered during Hurricane Harvey and stressed the importance of efforts like Project Owl.

"The sheer magnitude of storms like this," Evans writes of Hurricane Harvey, "and the fact that extreme weather isn't going anywhere anytime soon, really drive home the point that effective communication and logistics are among the highest [priorities] for organizations that are involved with rescuing people and with cleanup."

Katy was the second pilot site for Project Owl. The first large-scale test was done in March in Puerto Rico.

Members of the Project Owl team were pleased with the Katy test. Knouse says the speed of DuckLink deployment improved versus the Puerto Rico test, and the network error transmission rate fell from more than 30 percent to around 10 percent.

"This test is important for anyone who wants to see how we will support communities during natural disasters," Knouse tells InnovationMap. "The growth and improvement [seen in the Katy test] confirms that we can continue to improve the speed, scale, and performance of the network, elevating confidence that if it's deployed during a real disaster, we can support recovery and critical life saving activities."

Following the Puerto Rico and Katy pilots, Project Owl will test the technology again later this year in Puerto Rico, as well as in Alabama, California, and Washington state, according to Knouse.

"It's one thing to build something in a lab and say, 'It works.' It's another to have complete strangers watch the technology deployment and say, 'It works — we need this as soon as possible.' And we are working at maximum capacity to make that happen," Knouse wrote in May.

Owl deploys duck technology

Courtesy of Project Owl

About five of the "rubber ducks" are needed to track one square mile.

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Building Houston

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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