Using Wi-Fi ‘ducks’ to help in natural disasters

Puerto Rico

What we did

A disaster can sever communications across communities, leaving stranded residents unable to call for help. First responders often struggle to figure out which areas need what assistance and how soon.

Enter Project OWL, an emergency mobile Wi–Fi network that can be set up anywhere. It uses baseball–size, rubber–coated devices with mini–Wi–Fi relays inside. (Inspired by those yellow duck bath toys, they’re called “ducks.” A network of them is called a “clusterduck.”)

In a large-scale emergency, drones or a plane can drop these devices over a broad area. People with smartphones or laptops can connect with them and send information to first responders, including their location, condition and needs.

“In the worst disasters, chaos and misinformation are pervasive,” Bryan Knouse, co–founder and chief executive officer of Project OWL told Bloomberg in an interview. “With better information and better analytics, you can get the resources you need to the places that need it most.”

The five members of Project OWL — short for Organization, Whereabouts, and Logistics — won IBM’s first Call for Code Global Challenge, which drew more than 100,000 developers from 156 countries to create open–source solutions to help in natural disasters.

The prize was $200,000 and support from IBM Service Corps to make the idea real. In March 2019, backed by a IBM Service Corps team made up of an interdisciplinary team of experts from across IBM, the Project OWL technology was deployed and tested across areas of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria two years before.

The team set up mini–Wi–Fi relays on trees, signs, sand dunes, and cars to create a network covering a square mile. Testing in a hot, humid environment gave the team plenty of ideas to refine their system.

“My hope is that we are able to set up internet networks quickly at a low cost and that they work,” Knouse said. “It doesn’t have to be fancy, crazy military technology; part of what makes a solution profound is being simple and creative.”

The Project OWL Pilot: Puerto Rico | Code and Response Deployment Feature