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

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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