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Project OWL: A Mesh Network That Connects People Amidst Disasters
November 3, 2020 News


Communications have been a very big problem in emergency situations, especially during natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes where power grids, cell towers and internet cables are often damaged. This affects emergency response teams in reaching people in need, as there is no way to contact people unless they search throughout the whole debris caused by disasters.

Project OWL (Organization, Whereabouts and Logistics), winner of the 2018 Call for Code Challenge, a global initiative where developers and problem solvers build solutions that take on societal issues, found a solution for this, drawing inspiration from what happened in Puerto Rico given the impact of Hurricane Maria and the island’s challenging topography.

Bringing software and hardware together, Project OWL provides simple wireless devices equipped with IBM Watson™ Studio, Watson Cloud APIs and The Weather Company APIs. These small devices are enclosed in a waterproof case, with a small IoT computer board, a radio antenna and a battery pack.

This is how it works: each device, called DuckLink, is deployed in remote areas that are hard to reach for response teams, let’s say five DuckLinks to cover a square mile. These DuckLinks are equipped with LoRa (Long Range), WiFi and Bluetooth to connect with each other. Civilians can connect to these devices using their consumer electronics through WiFi, providing a simple portal for people to send their location through messages.

“When you have equipment that’s going to be used during a disaster, you have to keep it fairly simple”, one of the researchers said. “Not just because there might be people without the same education as you or the same technical background as you, but it needs to be very simple to operate under stress”.

DuckLinks can take any form and can be deployed before or during a disaster, from floating devices for floods, devices strapped in trees and even devices on drones to provide connectivity impromptu on harder to reach areas.

Then, these DuckLinks will relay messages to a hub called MaMaDuck, where it would send all messages to the PaPaDuck device. These PaPaDuck devices can connect to the OWL Data Management System via WiFi, LTE and satellite, where emergency response teams can see insights and data visualisations.

Together, these devices form a mesh network, which the researchers call ClusterDuck, effectively providing connectivity between people in distress during emergencies and response teams for rescue operations.

“A solution like OWL definitely could come in handy in an emergency like the one we had”, said Ruth Silva, Deputy to the Chief of Operations, ITDRC Puerto Rico, a Code and Response implementation partner. “There are other solutions like the hardware [and the software]. But this combination of both, it’s what makes it different and powerful”.