Emergency Modularized Assistance (EMMA)
Responding to a prompt of 'Energy, Carbon, and Society', our team examined Hurricane Harvey as a case study to understand how organizations can help after disasters. Using a process that was iterative, data rich, and systems focused, we were able to design and prototype a modular connected device that can extend rescue worker's capabilities.
Frequency and severity of floods are increasing year over year
Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damages and destroyed 204,000 homes. We found that in Galveston Pier, Texas, yearly flood events in 1980 were <1, but by 2050 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts 9 flood events every year. Additionally, the number of first responders is expected to rise only modestly. There is a need to rethink how these human resources are deployed in order to build resiliency.
Subject matter expert interview
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response to Hurricane Harvey
We spoke with a subject matter expert at FEMA, Eva Martin, who validated our initial research. She provided insights into the timeline of FEMA response and the stakeholders who were involved in Hurricane Harvey. She also directed us towards multiple reports where we could continue our research. We reconnected with Eva multiple times throughout our design process.
Key research learnings
HAZMAT monitoring was done with handheld instruments
We organized our research to pull out the top insights. One learning that stood out to us was the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deployed workers to take air and water quality samples using handheld sensors, in order to ensure no toxic chemicals came into contact with humans after Hurricane Harvey. This struck us as a task could be easily automated, which could both free up manpower and increase the quality and amount of data gathered.
Expanding resources with limited manpower
We defined our problem statement and design considerations, shown above. Flood events are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the number of staff who are able to help is not growing to meet this demand. Therefore, a flexible solution that fits into the existing FEMA organizational infrasctructure is needed in order to improve resiliency in the coming years.
Synthesizing insights into concepts
We spent several days ideating using the insights from our research. We saw the opportunity to create an autonomous floating platform that could provide assistance in flooded coastal regions. There are benefits to a floating drone compared to a flying quadcopter: it requires less energy to float than to fly, the payloads can be heavier, and the vehicle is more stable.
Validating concepts using a crude initial prototype
For our first prototype, we used PVC to create a floating form and an off-the-shelf radio controlled boat to maneuver it. We were able to validate the scale of our floating module, and learned that we needed to use lightweight materials.
Validating concepts using a refined prototype with a connected device
For our second prototype, we validated the form of our floating module, and performed a magnetic connection of two modules on water. We also programmed a LoRa radio with a methane sensor on the floating module to communicate in real time with a laptop on shore.
EMMA is a modular system of floating platforms that use solar power for off-the-grid operation. EMMA can be configured, snapping together with electropermanent magnets, to gather data and provide emergency aid. EMMA is intended to augment the capabilities of emergency responders and gather data to provide improved situational awareness.
Lightweight, affordable, and durable
The Emma modules separate the high-value electronics from the 'common core' base, so if the base is damaged parts can be easily swapped out. The base is a rotational molded polyethylene with a hollow catamaran construction for buoyancy. The Water-jet powered propulsion allows for extremely shallow water operations (10cm). Autonomous navigation is made possible by GPS and Proximity Sensing. Long-range communication of data that is gathered is made possible using a LoRa radio.
Flexible and scalable architecture
The EMMA modules connect using electropermanent magnets, allowing stacking of capabilities and customization for mission needs. Swarms can reconfigure on water if needed.
- Environmental Protection Agency. (2018). Hurricane Harvey The State and Federal Response. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2018-06/documents/hurricane_harvey_the_state_and_federal_response_tceq_0.pdf
- Flooding Days Projection Tool, University of Hawaii Sea Level Center. (n.d.). NASA Sea Level Change. https://sealevel.nasa.gov/flooding-days-projection/
- Rasmussen, B. N. C. J. P. L. (2021, July 20). Study Projects a Surge in Coastal Flooding, Starting in 2030s. NASA Global Climate Change. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/3093/study-projects-a-surge-in-coastal-flooding-starting-in-2030s/
- Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. (2017, October). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Environmental Response Team Trace Atmosphere Gas Analyzer (TAGA) Post-Harvey Monitoring Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont Areas, TX. https://www.tceq.texas.gov/assets/public/response/hurricanes/EPA-TAGA-report.pdf
- Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. (2018, April). Hurricane Harvey Response 2017 AFTER ACTION REVIEW REPORT. https://www.tceq.texas.gov/assets/public/response/hurricanes/hurricane-harvey-after-action-review-report.pdf
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General. (2019, December). EPA Needs to Improve Its Emergency Planning to Better Address Air Quality Concerns During Future Disasters. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-12/documents/_epaoig_20191216-20-p-0062.pdf