Late-night lampoon of Alabama spurs high-tech drone plan
It all started when Ali Darwish saw late night “news” comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver poking fun at Alabama.
This time it wasn’t about politics or racism, it was about dams. Stewart, the former Daily Show host, and Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, both did bits on America’s infrastructure crumbling, and pointed out that Alabama was the only state in the nation without a dam inspection program.
Darwish, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was then an electrical engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He and several engineering student friends at UAH had already formed a team to compete in a NASA competition to demonstrate practical uses for drones.
Then Darwish heard about the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge, a global competition sponsored by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers to spur innovative solutions to the national and worldwide problem of aging infrastructure.
And he remembered those late-night comedy bits. The team decided that was their project.
“Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that does not have a dam safety program and this is unacceptable because we all live near dams,” Darwish said. “We don’t want to see any disaster happen because of neglecting this important infrastructure.”
The students went their separate ways, but continued the work: Darwish, Dr. Arie Nakhmani , Shushan Vardanyan at UAB; Analyn Bengs at UAH; Nicholas Gorgone at George Washington University. Later, Auburn University student Collin McMahon joined the team as well.
Their proposal, “One Crack Away from Disaster,” advocates the use of smart drones, both flying and submersible, to inspect dams on their own – think a Roomba on steroids — using high-tech sensors and virtual reality modeling to bringing the inspections to the engineers.
The system would help inspect dams more thoroughly, with airborne and submersible drones accessing places humans have a hard time getting to, and pinpoint the deficiencies and help engineers propose solutions.
They built a prototype drone and submitted their proposal, and last week won the “Dream Phase” of the competition, netting them $9,000 to buy the hardware, microcontrollers, sensors to start building the complex drones they envision.
Now, they have to get major hydro dam owners like Alabama Power, TVA, the Army Corps of Engineers, to take interest and take the concept to the next level.
They know $9,000 isn’t enough to make this all happen, but by building prototypes that can show big players the potential, this team could start a major change in the way Alabama and America’s infrastructure crisis is attacked.
Having won the competition, “We feel that we are somehow responsible for doing something,” Darwish said.
In Alabama, Darwish said, the state can’t even draw down federal dollars for dam safety programs because they don’t have the data to submit with their application. Only 2 percent of our dams ever get inspected.
Put these smart drones to work, and that could make what’s not possible now possible.
Nationwide, the estimated cost to fix all dam infrastructure is already $21 billion. That will grow after 2020, when 70 percent of the nation’s dams will be more than 50 years old.
Darwish said using drone technology is an opportunity to redirect money into building new dams and fixing ones that can be fixed, which in turn would create jobs.
“If we were able to lower the figure of the required investment 30 percent, and increase the efficiency of inspection and maintenance by up to 70 percent, newer projects could be funded to boost the economy and people’s quality of life will be considerably improved,” the team said in its proposal.
It’s a great idea, and it’s ironically delicious that a team of brilliant minds in Alabama came up with it after seeing their state lampooned again on national television.