Tornado Warning App Emerging From Lego Robotics Challenge

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Windsor Star/Sharon Hill

Imagine if there was a free app that would warn you by text, a recorded phone message or buzzing that you could be in the path of a tornado headed to Windsor and Essex County.

A group of students ages eight to 13 on the local VerifastBots FIRST Lego Robotics Team envisioned it in a global competition that uses Lego and a challenge — this year it’s called Nature’s Fury — to get kids excited about science and technology.

Since people may not be watching television when a tornado warning is issued and there aren’t working sirens, the team of seven  kids came up with the idea of TT360 — Tornado Tracker 360 — to warn via wireless devices of an oncoming tornado.

“We came along with it by learning that the warning systems the way they are, are very, very bad,” 11-year-old Mackenzie Parks said Tuesday of the app that needs to be developed.

“We actually do think it will be used in real life.”

The Grade 6 Stella Maris school student in Amherstburg  said tornado warnings are slow and some people listen for sirens that no longer exist. The system the students envision offers immediate warning using dual polarization radar which tracks the debris field of the tornado and pinpoints where you are and the nearest tornado shelter using GPS, Parks said. It would include a map to show the tornado’s predicted path.

Citing deadly area tornadoes in 1946 and 1974, Mackenzie said the app could save lives.

It’s the kind of innovation that can be sparked by the FIRST (Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League that combines a project with a robotics competition and teaching core values. This year the competition is focused on natural disasters and will involve more than 200,000 children from 70 countries.

Part of the project involves building a Lego community and using Lego robots to complete a task such as launching a cargo plane to drop supplies, lifting a tree branch or saving Lego people. Since all teams use the same Lego mat, it isn’t just about a tornado but other natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Parks said the most challenging part was programming the robot.

His father Allan, the team’s coach, said CenterLine Windsor Ltd. is sponsoring two teams. Nine area teams will compete Nov. 30 at St. Clair College with a chance to move on to a competition in Toronto.

VerifastBots FIRST Lego Robotics Team chose Essex County and a tornado as their project and would like to see their warning system be developed as a free app. A preliminary design is being done for them. Other apps don’t try to pinpoint the direction of the tornado, Allan said.

Through the project and the recent typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Allan said”the kids have gained a heightened awareness of what’s going on around the world.”

The other rookie CenterLine team, the Supersonics, focused on the 2004 tsunami in Thailand with the idea to plant mangrove trees on beaches to mitigate the impact of tsunamis. Supersonics coach Eric Michaud said the FIRST Lego League draws together science, technology and problem solving with real world disasters.