Puerto Rico Uses The New Project OWL Communication System Before The Hurricane Season

Date:Mar 22, 2019


On March 13, 2019, members of OWL (organizing whereabouts and logistics) Project arrived in Isabella, Puerto Rico, and the field test authorities introduced a new system to communicate with survivors after natural disasters.

In the dark and isolated days of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican residents invented the way they communicated: elderly couples who need water or food put a flag in their house. Neighbors created a simple security system: they knocked the pan for a minute every night to indicate the beginning of the curfew, and from that moment on, any human voice would be considered help.

Since the hurricane interfered with the telephone, only the radio station was still working, and the mayors of all 78 cities could not report their needs to the authorities. It is impossible to enter the affected area. The police, firefighters and emergency personnel cannot communicate with each other for several days.

“The biggest crisis after Maria’s adoption was communication,” said Nazario Lugo, president of the Emergency Managers Association. “From there, many things have been released.”

Now, several groups of technology developers are trying to prevent the same situation from being repeated in case another major disaster occurs. These people are equipped with computers, transmitters and drones to test new systems, help survivors communicate with the authorities, speed up response times and minimize the number of deaths.

After the storm of September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was considered the ideal place to test and refine these inventions and its consequences, including the loss of 2,975 lives. On an island where police and firefighters lack a communication system between the two companies, technology is also lagging behind.puerto_rico_hurricane_maria

A development team, with the support from IBM, the OWL project was established. The project won a $200,000 prize in the competition, and 100,000 developers participated in the collection at the end of last year, which was around the initiative in preparation and assistance around the natural disaster.

“We are thinking about 'how can we use it in the easiest way, even without thinking?'” said Bryan Knouse, head of the OWL project team. “It’s really hard to tell people who have suffered disasters” to download this app or visit the website “. They don’t plan to do this.”

The small transmitter box emits a low-frequency Wi-Fi wireless connection that users can access via their mobile phone. Once linked, a box will automatically be displayed in English and Spanish, and people can enter information such as name, location, number of pets, medical needs and dangers such as trees and wires, fire or obstacle roads.

This information will be forwarded to the network and finally forwarded to the authorities.

The team recently conducted the first test of the system in a large area of Isabella, Puerto Rico. A group of people climbed into a car and repeatedly stopped to place the launcher around 1.6 square kilometers, while another group led by Knouse remained at its base, which was a roof that day. The grilled rib restaurant has enough height to pick up the sign. To amplify the power of the signal transmitter, two large cream balloons purchased at a nearby store were used.

The transmitter uses a battery and solar panels may be used in the future. The team envisions the system operating from the United States to India and Japan.

Every two minutes, Knouse's computer sends out a message, including the name, location and details of the tour group, which appears on the map with the words "Please help me!" and "I need water!!!" and then The team met with members of the local boys and girls club to show the technology to younger users, hoping they could teach and share with their neighbors.

Isabella Mayor Carlos Delgado said he was impressed with the project and hoped to complete the project before Maria made the island's communications system useless. He regrets that after the hurricane, city officials had to walk to dozens of communities to meet people's needs, which delayed the delivery of food, water and medicine.

“It’s a bit like going back to our origins: walking everything,” he added.

Another project was led by Puerto Rican Pedro Cruz, a self-taught technology developer.

Remember to see information like "SOS" and "We need food" on the road, with big letters on it, so that you can see them from the air after Maria. Cruz believes that before the storm, people can be distributed on 1.50 feet (5 feet) long carpets, marked with symbols indicating food, water or medical use. Scheduled drones can fly over these areas, read symbols and process information about demand and location to receive the first responder.

When he was unable to reach the place where his grandmother was after Maria, he thought of this idea. He could not communicate with her and was worried because her grandmother had feelings of breathing and coronary artery. Therefore, he decided to send his drone to her house, she waved from the window.

Cruz said: "She heard the drone, knowing that this is me." He added that his grandmother died of respiratory and heart failure two months after the hurricane, and suffered a power outage in a hospital intensive care unit.

He continued to drive drones to the rest of Puerto Rico for a few days and weeks after Maria, and found that food and water had been sent to the communities that had received the supplies, while others prayed for such assistance, “there was a lot of duplication of work. ". He pointed out that his system can help to avoid this situation.

Other technology companies, such as Google's aftermath of licensing from the US Federal Communications Commission, will provide an emergency through the balloon dragon that provides mobile phone service.

However, Lugo, Director of the Puerto Rican Emergency Management Bureau, warned that the island still needs to strengthen and update its communications system before the start of the hurricane season on June 1. He also stressed that the authorities should allow amateur radio operators to participate in the communication system.

“Communication should not be restricted,” he said, adding that the government needs to adopt new technologies. "We are still lacking."