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Building a Better Mousetrap

June 5, 2010
Aaron Traxinger holds an antenna developed by MSU researchers in collaboration with Advanced Acoustic Concepts, Inc., of Bozeman. The antenna is a cylinder that’s about three inches in diameter and a foot long.
(MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

Noticed two news stories this week, on small technological innovations that might make hazard mitigation and response easier.

First, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on a local entrepreneur who was developed an all-in-one emergency response unit.

It’s like an industrial Swiss Army Knife for natural disasters, towering at more than 8 feet tall.

Chanhassen entrepreneur Deborah Yungner has come up with a machine that can purify water; provide electricity, air, and satellite communications; and can inflate a tent to house at least 20 people.

Yungner’s company, Emergency Response Backup Utility System, or ERBUS, is marketing the system for government aid during major disasters such as the Haitian earthquake. Already three local governments in New York and Texas have purchased ERBUS models. The models start at $125,000, and production will begin in July, Yungner said.

“It’s reflective of the need to sustain life,” Yungner said. “It’s a God idea.”

ERBUS, which will soon be based in Eagan, will have four different models. The business uses backup utilities created by other manufacturers and installs them on one unit. For example, the company’s 11,000-pound Sentry5000 model has a diesel-powered electric generator that can bring electricity to a small city block and a purification system that can make at least 3,600 gallons of salt water a day drinkable, among other features. The machine can be flown in by plane or helicopter or attached to a truck.

Second, the Bozeman Chronicle ran a story based on a press release from Montana State University, describing a new cell-phone antenna optimized for use in difficult and remote terrain.  And in Montana or Minnesota, you don’t have to be too far out of the city for cell phone signals to get pretty darn remote.

Emergency workers in rugged, rural areas may never lose a cell phone call again thanks to a new antenna developed by Montana State University researchers in collaboration with Advanced Acoustic Concepts, Inc.

Dropped calls when using a cell phone in rough terrain is a common problem that can be addressed by the MSU antenna, according to the developers.

The MSU antenna is considered a “smart” or “adaptive array” antenna because it uses a computer chip to automatically aim the message transmission beam in the right direction, chooses the most appropriate signal strength, optimizes the strength of transmitted beams and adapts to the environment. The automatic control allows users to communicate in rugged terrain while on the move. Unlike normal antennas, which broadcast in all directions simultaneously, smart antennas maintain a direct signal between individuals users, which could mean fewer dropped calls and the ability to move more data, such as streaming video.

With help from student teams, the researchers built and successfully tested a prototype under mobile use in rugged Montana terrain. First responders in Eastern Montana, firefighters in the wilderness, telecommunications providers in remote areas and soldiers in Afghanistan are among those who might use the MSU technology that’s available now for licensing.

Unlike most commercial smart antennas that have a limited range of 120 degrees or less, the MSU antenna can rapidly process signals in a 360-degree range.

The MSU antenna can lock onto one signal and tune out unwanted signals, giving users a stronger, clearer, more reliable signal than they’d have otherwise. The MSU antenna can track and hold a signal even when the sender or receiver is moving. It is also capable of high bandwidth transmissions such as sending live video. Users might want to optimize communications by integrating the antenna with other antennas to form a “meshed” network in a back-country environment for emergency response or military operations.

While we focus in mitigation on preventing hazards, planning for effective response is an important component of minimizing effects of hazards.  Time and time again, local planning teams keep coming back to two things—backup for essential services, in particular power generation, and effective communications systems.

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