The deadliest hurricane in Puerto Rican history began as a cluster of thunderstorms off the western bulge of Africa on Sept. 13, 2017. Fueled by evaporation from warm tropical water just north of the equator, the storms began to form into circular bands and rotate around the area of low pressure moving west across the Atlantic Ocean. Three days later as the winds in those bands reached 75 mph, Hurricane Maria was officially born.
After pummeling the Lesser Antilles, Maria approached Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a powerful Category 4 storm. Traversing the island, the storm created devastation with violent winds (speed records were unreliable after land-based wind sensors were destroyed) and torrential flooding (almost 40 inches of rain fell on the mountain town of Caguas). Maria caused $90 billion in damage and, according to a George Washington University study commissioned by the commonwealth's governor, left 2,975 people dead.
But Maria did more than destroy roads, bridges and entire towns -- it took down the island's power grid and knocked out most of the wireless networks and internet cables. In the weeks after the storm, those communications gaps severely hampered relief efforts. Without the ability to contact injured people, first responders can't help them. And when emergency crews are working in dangerous environments, such as paramedics after a hurricane or firefighters battling some of the largest wildfires in California history, their commanders need to be able to monitor their health so they can keep saving lives. Fortunately, tech developers are stepping in to help, with new technologies like mesh networks that can be quickly deployed in ruined areas and wearable equipment that monitors the health of firefighters in real time.
"In the worst disasters, chaos and misinformation are pervasive," says Bryan Knouse, the CEO of Project Owl, a Brooklyn-based startup that's developed just such a mesh network. "With better information and better analytics, you can get the resources you need to the places that need it most."
In 2018, Project Owl (Owl stands for "organization, whereabouts and logistics") was the winner of IBM's first Call for Code Global Challenge, which asked developers to build systems for improving preparedness for natural disasters and relief efforts. Project Owl started testing its network on the island in March 2019. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Knouse says the need for reliable communication is more important than ever.
"This year in general has been an exceptional year of adversity," he says. "[COVID-19] is very different in nature from a hurricane, but a community needs the same things after a disaster, whether it's a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood, a wildfire or a global pandemic."
Darrick Kouns, the chief of operations and commonwealth coordinator with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, has been testing Project Owl's tech in Puerto Rico since last year. The Dallas-based disaster relief nonprofit sent a team to the island a week after Maria hit to provide tech-related assistance during the recovery effort. Kouns knows that saving lives depends on remaining online.
"People think, 'Oh it's just the internet or whatever,'" he says. "No ... a lack of communication kills people."
IBM kept the same theme for the 2019 Call for Code Challenge, awarding that year's $200,000 top prize to a startup called Prometeo. A team of Barcelona developers wanted to make a device that uses the internet of things and machine learning to tell firefighters when they're being exposed to life-threatening amounts of chemicals. The danger is only increasing as deadly wildfires, like the gigafire currently ravaging the US West Coast, become more common due to climate change.
Prometeo co-founder Salomé Valero says these blazes are considered the "sixth or seventh generation" -- wildfires grow more intense and spread increasingly quickly with each generation -- so they're nearly impossible to control. California's blaze has been called a gigafire because it's burned at least a million acres.
"The speed of the fire is too much -- the firefighters' extinguishing capacity isn't enough to stop it," Valero says. "They try to put limits on the boundaries of the fire -- it's the only thing they can do. So that means the current wildfires are burning for days; the toxic substances and their effects are not only dangerous for firefighters. Society is breathing this air."
Yazet Sepulveda was lucky during Hurricane Maria. Now a student at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, he and his family didn't suffer major injuries. But he still experienced the crippling effects of the communications blackout.
"There was no way of contacting your loved ones for around the first few weeks to the first month," he remembers. "And with the streets blocked because of all of the debris, you couldn't just go and see your family members, even if they were a couple of miles away.
"People have thought about better communication systems forever ... but you never actually think of the exact solutions until somebody comes up with them."
Today, Sepulveda sees Project Owl as one of those solutions. Since October, he's led a group of Mayagüez students who've deployed Project Owl's equipment around the campus while continuing to test the gear and support it with further development. He says the technology could be a huge asset next time disaster hits the island, a timely concern in the second most active Atlantic hurricane season ever. Puerto Rico's location on the border of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates also makes it vulnerable to earthquakes.
"There are people living in the rural areas, and as soon as something happens to them -- they have an injured person, they're lacking food or they're lacking water -- they can immediately notify [first responders] through this mesh network." he says. "The first responders will immediately know where and what is going on."
For what it promises, Project Owl's tech works in a simple way. It consists of both hardware -- wireless devices called DuckLinks -- and the open-source management software used by the hardware. Working together, they let anyone, from an injured family in a ruined house to the rescuer trying to reach them, go online and talk to each other. They also can pinpoint a person's location through GPS. It's all helpful information when you realize that a fleet of the best ambulances is useless if you don't know where to send them.
"We can't stop a hurricane," Knouse says. "But what we can do is provide communities the organizational and communications capacity they need to respond to them as effectively as they can."
The process for going online starts with the DuckLink devices, which use a long-range radio to connect to one another, in what Project Owl calls a ClusterDuck network. Together they form a wireless "mesh" that gives the mesh network its name. Devices called MamaDucks then act as a hub for the network, connecting to the PapaDucks internet gateways that forward the data traffic to the Linux-based OWL Data Management System through a cellular, Wi-Fi or satellite connection.
DuckLinks can take almost any shape or form and can run off batteries or solar power. As long as you have a circuit board and upload the firmware, you can make any enclosure you want for as little as $30. When CNET met with Knouse in late January, before the coronavirus changed the world, he showed us a few DuckLink designs, some of which Project Owl makes.
A common example that's now being tested in Puerto Rico is just a small clear plastic shell with an antenna sticking out of the top. It looks a bit like a walkie-talkie, and it's small enough to carry in a pocket. Other designs are made to be attached to walls, utility poles or trees. There's even one that floats in water and is self-righting. Though there isn't a DuckLink that resembles an actual duck, you could make one if you wanted to.
Sepulveda says DuckLinks' flexible designs and ability to run off solar power are huge assets. Developers could adapt DuckLinks to any environment and not have to worry about keeping a battery charged. "It's not reliant on any external power grid, it's completely self-sufficient. And one of the most beautiful things about open source is that anyone can buy a duck and set it up."
Deployment of the DuckLinks (either before or after a disaster) starts with Project Owl and local officials deciding where the mesh networks are needed, based on where people live and where the communication gaps exist. Then they'll decide on the best locations to drop the devices, taking into account the local geography. Exactly how many DuckLinks are needed depends on the situation, as their signals can range from a few hundred meters to a kilometer.
As with any other device that uses radio, the DuckLink's signals can be blocked by mountains, dense foliage, concrete or metal walls. It's not that different from finding the best place for a Wi-Fi router in your house -- reception drops as you move into other rooms or if you go outside. Even air pressure and high humidity can slow down the network.
"It's a very frustrating, hard-learned lesson that's heavily influenced by the terrain you're going into," Knouse says. "Height is might in radio communications. So [putting ducks] on trees or plastic poles is good, and generally staying away from metal is good. But understanding that if you're in a rainforest, radio communication does not propagate the way it does across a cold, crisp field."
Though Kouns of the ITDRC acknowledges that the island's mountainous and thickly forested terrain make it hard to build a strong mesh network, it's also an ideal place to test Project Owl's real potential. In any case, the technology isn't designed to replace a cell network forever.
"You have very urban areas to coastal areas to pretty rugged mountains," he says. "But [Project Owl] isn't building a device that solves everything. ... It's to get the community through a time until a more permanent solution can be put in place."
If an individual DuckLink does go offline -- maybe it loses power or is crushed by a falling tree -- the system is designed to be self-healing, with other DuckLinks taking over. That's one feature Kouns finds especially appealing.
"With any mesh network like that, you get one of them in your sequence too far off and it essentially breaks the chain." he says. "If crap will go wrong, it absolutely will during an emergency."
The actual deployment process can happen by hand, from a car or even via drone in a flooded or hard-to-reach area. But once the network is deployed and activated, people need only to find it on their phone to start a connection. Search for a Wi-Fi network and you'll see one called "Duck Emergency Portal" with an "SOS" emoji. Select it and a portal pops up; then you can send messages and communicate -- you don't need to enter login credentials or download an app. Kouns says he appreciates how the system is easy to use, regardless of a person's education or technical know-how.
"When you have equipment that's going to be used during a disaster, you have to keep it fairly simple," he says. "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."
Ruth Silva, ITDRC's assistant operations chief in Puerto Rico, says that after asking a group of children aged 7 to 9 to use the DuckLinks, she realized emojis are one way to overcome language and literacy barriers. So, for example, when answering a question like 'What do you need?" a person could use a droplet emoji to ask for water or a red cross to request medical attention.
"[The children] know how to use Wi-Fi. They got to the portal and it was easy enough for them to just click on questions," Silva says. "But one of the things we got from them was that we needed to use more emojis, not not only to talk to the kids, but also because some words may be difficult maybe for an older person."
First responders fighting wildfires face unique challenges, and startup Prometeo is trying to keep them healthy while they battle a blaze. The company (named after Prometheus, the mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humanity) makes a lightweight device -- about the size of an iPhone -- that straps to a firefighter's arm and uses electrochemical sensors to measure carbon monoxide, temperature, humidity and smoke concentration.
Together, those elements can cause headaches and other short-term discomfort. But by monitoring the chemicals that firefighters are being exposed to in real time and warning them when those chemicals reach dangerous levels, Prometeo's goal is to alleviate more dangerous long-term effects, such as cancer and other illnesses, like those suffered by 9/11 first responders who worked on the World Trade Center site.
Juan Herrera, one of the Prometeo team's firefighters, has 33 years of experience, 14 of which he's spent with the department tasked with battling wildfires in Cerdanyola del Vallès, an area near Barcelona.
"We worked side by side," he says. "Fellow firefighters that have died in my hands, in my arms."
He and EMS nurse Vicenç Padró conducted on-the-job research into the toxic chemicals by manually checking firefighters' health data, but they found they lacked the resources and technical knowledge to develop any long-term strategies. It was enough to make them deeply concerned. So they joined IT professionals Salomé Valero, Josep Ràfols and Marco Rodriguez in developing a technical solution, also called Prometeo.
"Juan made a profound impression on us," Valero says. "He has suffered a lot during his career."
The device is designed to work with multiple IBM Cloud services -- data on the chemicals a firefighter is inhaling gets transmitted to the IBM Cloud IoT platform. From there, it's sent to the IBM Watson-based machine learning model that cross-checks it against the firefighter's historical health data. Ultimately, that creates a color-coded output on the Prometeo dashboard at an on-site command center.
If the firefighter's status shows green, things are OK. But a yellow or red signal means there's danger of long-term health damage, so the firefighter needs to get away fast.
"We're going to have real data from firefighters, and after a few years with enough data, we are going to have scientific evidence of the consequences of these toxic substances," Valero says. "And that is not only important for firefighters, it's also important for civilians. We have cases, like Australia and Manchester (England), where wildfires are burning for days, even months."
The Prometeo team kicked off field testing in February, seeing how well the device worked for 10 firefighters as they battled a controlled wildfire burn outside Barcelona. Joan Esteve Bonmatí was part of that group, and the test highlighted the subtle, potentially deadly impact of toxic chemicals on his health.
"Before the closing briefing, I could see all my day's data," he says. "Even when my sensor said I was getting intoxicated, I felt OK and could do my job normally, without any symptoms or feeling ill."
The team planned to start testing with fire departments in March, but the coronavirus lockdown kicked in before that could happen.
Herrera and the team's other firefighters were drafted to help disinfect local hospitals, so the developers worked on improving the device -- their goal was to add more sensors to scan for additional chemicals like nitrogen dioxide, along with making sure firefighters' health data remained secure.
"We want to ensure the security in every fire station, so they'll only see their data," Valero says. "With the data in the cloud, I think it is important for them to have that security."
Though both Project Owl and Prometeo have plans to expand, travel restrictions and social distancing measures from the coronavirus pandemic have paused them. For now it's unclear when they'll be able to resume.
When that happens, though, Prometeo hopes to roll out its field-testing to at least five locations, including Andalusia and Catalonia in Spain, plus Argentina, Australia and California, having been in contact with fire departments in each place. For the last two places in particular, the technology couldn't come at a more critical time. Massive wildfires burned Australia in January, and late summer brought four of the five largest blazes in California's history, some of which are still burning.
The team wants to test multiple forms of connectivity -- Wi-Fi, Project Owl and LoRa wireless -- in remote areas that have poor internet and cellular coverage. The updated device also lets firefighters view their readings via a smartwatch in case their connection to the main system is cut off.
"So the next milestone is the field test in a global way, with a new version of the device," Valero says. "And if we are lucky, perhaps at the end of this year. We're optimistic."
Knouse says Project Owl hopes to return to Puerto Rico once it's safe to travel, and he's exploring how the DuckLink could be used elsewhere. The company has demonstrated its technology in Texas, New York City and Philadelphia, and in Alabama for the Department of Homeland Security.
He's also pitched the idea to officials in San Rafael, California, for use when local utility PG&E uses Public Safety Power Shutoff programs to avoid sparking wildfires in dry, windy weather. Without power, residents can lose their home internet and even wireless service, robbing them of ways to get crucial information about a fire's progress, including evacuation warnings.
County officials "had no way to communicate with their residents," Knouse says. "Residents weren't aware of what was going on, and they couldn't find resources or communicate with each other during that challenging time period."