The world is experiencing more natural disasters now than at any other time in history. Severe weather, earthquakes or floods can devastate communities, cutting off all communications. Each year, billions of residents are left in the dark with no way to call for help, request supplies or notify others of their status. To prevent such life-threatening emergencies, a group of five technology entrepreneurs from across the country has teamed up to create OWL (Organization, Whereabouts and Logistics), a low-frequency Wifi network paired with a cloud-based software solution that provides first responders with a reliable network to manage disasters when other primary communications systems are down.
A data hub for emergency responders
University of Tulsa computer science alumnus Charlie Evans is one of the original five who helped develop Project Owl in 2018 with founder and CEO Bryan Knouse. The group began to take shape and build a software platform known as OWL DMS, or a disaster management system, to act as a hub for data during natural disasters. The stars aligned when Project Owl welcomed a developer to the team who had the idea for a piece of hardware that would transmit the data using the long-range wireless technology known as LoRa. “It’s a particular frequency used for IoT (Internet of Things) devices in America and nothing else will interfere with it,” Evans explained, who serves as the team’s chief software architect. “It has the capability to reach further distances between two points than a traditional wireless network.”
These networks of ducks, once deployed, cluster to communicate with civilian devices and reach first responders to help coordinate resources, track weather patterns and retrieve data analytics through the IBM Cloud.
Project Owl’s software platform paired with hardware capable of data transmission proved to be a winning combination, and in 2018, the team won the inaugural Call for Code Global Challenge, a hackathon sponsored by IBM with 100,000 developers from 156 countries. The win granted Project Owl an opportunity to deploy its technology through the IBM Corporate Service Corps and pursue further development of its model. “When we started, our focus was based on natural disasters, and we were very inspired when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico,” Evans said. “We’ve made several trips to Puerto Rico in the past 15 months to connect with local governments and universities to discuss what they went through and try to get people involved in the project.”
Testing Owl in Puerto Rico and Texas
University of Puerto Rico faculty and staff currently maintain Project Owl hardware installed in their local area and have assisted in a pilot study where clusters of the duck devices were deployed in March of 2019. “We got up to 30 to 35 devices, and every couple of minutes, we received temperature, wind and barometric pressure readings from those devices,” Evans said. “We’re working on building this up to include more devices and cover a bigger service area.”
In May, Project Owl ran another pilot study in Evans’ local community of Katy, Texas. The Houston suburb was an important area to test after its overwhelming devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “Houston is so humid, and humidity is definitely a large factor in radio frequency transmission,” he explained. “We noticed that in more humid areas, we couldn’t place two devices as far apart as say New York City or Connecticut.”
These international and domestic pilot studies provide priceless information to the Project Owl team and have presented new possibilities for the technology. Evans said the group has conducted high-altitude testing with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by sending ducks up into the atmosphere in a weather balloon. Project Owl’s hardware also shows promise with a private security firm in Syria, can monitor methane output for operators in the oil and gas industry and could track the temperature of trucks used to ship Red Cross medical supplies.
Dropping ducks in the middle of disasters
Another benefit to the device’s versatility is its inexpensive price tag. Project Owl reports the ducks are simple to assemble at a cost of less than $40 each. Also, the duck’s quarter-mile to half-mile service range makes it a good candidate for dropping the devices out of a helicopter or airplane — blanketing an area with a simple communication network that connects via normal Wifi on a phone. “It pulls up a form, you fill out the form and it will use the long-range capability of the hardware to transmit and find its way through the network until it hits a point that it has internet connectivity,” he said. “It goes up in the cloud and then lands on the other side, which involves the cloud-based software we’re developing.”
Evans is a key component of Project Owl’s mission, but it’s not the only company to which he devotes his time; his primary job is senior programmer analyst at Helmerich & Payne in Houston. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from TU in 2009, Evans worked for a couple of small technology companies in Tulsa before joining H&P five years ago. His wife, Sara, also is a TU alumna who earned her undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering in 2010.
“In my professional career and everything I’ve learned to help start Project Owl, the main root of it all was that TU’s program taught me how to learn,” Evans stated. “Now when I’m faced with a challenge, it’s like second nature to know how to formulate a solution. TU’s theory-based classes laid the foundation for what I do.”
After an award-winning start, Evans and Project Owl anticipate a bright future for the technology and its ability to connect communities with life-saving resources.