Projects Are Designed to Assist in Disaster-Relief Efforts

Chemistry student Rashmi Sharma Image by Edwin L. Aguirre

Chemistry Ph.D. student Rashmi Sharma and her team won first place at this year’s MD5 hackathon, which was sponsored by MIT and the U.S. Department of Defense.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Two UMass Lowell graduate students were part of the teams that recently won top prizes at two “hackathons” organized by MIT, the U.S. Department of Defense MD5 program and the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). The competitions were held on the MIT campus in Cambridge.

During the hackathons, participating teams were given a challenge – in this case, how to help survivors of natural disasters – and had 72 hours to come up with a technological solution. Each team then presented its best idea to a panel of judges over the course of several rounds, and the team that garnered the highest cumulative score won the competition.

Rashmi Sharma, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, and her team won $15,000 in funding from MD5 with their concept called “Security Blanket,” a multipurpose, advanced functional fabric that can be used by disaster survivors. Omkar Bhandakkar, who is pursuing a Master of Science degree in energy engineering, and his team were awarded a cash prize of $1,500 by the NPS for developing the idea for a virtual command center that the Navy could use to help coordinate disaster-relief operations following a hypothetical earthquake-triggered tsunami.

“I’m very happy that our team won,” says Sharma, who hails from Nagpur, India, and is advised by Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of the Department of Plastics Engineering.

“It was my very first hackathon and it was a great learning experience,” she says. “The competition was open to the public and so 150 people participated, divided into 22 teams. They came from all walks of life – students, industry experts, housewives, emergency first responders, National Guard personnel, etc.”

The team’s Security Blanket is designed to not only keep a person warm, but it can also be used to carry the injured and for collecting firewood and supplies. “Since the blanket glows in the dark, it can offer some measure of safety and security by making the user highly visible at night,” notes Sharma.

The blanket’s outer layer is waterproof so it can be used as a raincoat, while its inner layer has antimicrobial properties to help prevent the spread of diseases in confined, overcrowded places like storm shelters and refugee camps, she explains.

Sharma claims the blanket can also help lift people’s spirit up. “On the waterproof side, we can even add games or puzzles or turn it into an erasable board to help keep young children entertained and preoccupied. There isn’t much to do at shelters,” she says.

Engineering student Omkar Bhandakkar
Energy engineering M.Sc. student Omkar Bhandakkar and his team took home the grand prize at the “HacktheMachine” competition organized by MIT and the Naval Postgraduate School.

The Security Blanket is inexpensive, lightweight and foldable, making it suitable for backpackers, motorists and soldiers in the field, she adds. 

Sharma’s team included students from MIT and Drexel University, textile experts and a first responder who serves in the Ohio Air National Guard.

“We will use the award money to develop a prototype of the product in three months. We will also look into the feasibility of converting the blanket material into tents, sleeping bags and backpacks,” says Sharma. 

Using Augmented and Virtual Reality to Solve Real-World Challenges

For their virtual command center, Bhandakkar and his team used AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) and consolidated data technologies that could help the Navy improve its disaster response. They used Microsoft HoloLens, a self-contained holographic computer and head-mounted visor that enables a “commander” to manipulate “maps” and other displays they had designed and created.

“We developed a voice-automated virtual command center that could be employed by the Navy commander using his hand gestures and voice commands to coordinate operations,” explains Bhandakkar. “With his fingers, he can zoom in on the maps, swipe and rotate them and make other changes that will be visible to his officers in the field wearing the HoloLens. This will help the Navy deliver fast disaster response and allocate assets and resources to people who need them most.”  

The NPS hackathon attracted nearly 400 participants from across the country. Bhandakkar’s team includes three students from the NPS and one industry expert in coding.

Bhandakkar, who is also from Nagpur, India, is concentrating on renewable solar engineering and is advised by Lecturer Walter Thomas in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Upon graduation, he plans to work in the solar energy industry.