Engineering isn’t just about inventing new things. Sometimes, it is all about doing things better, cheaper and faster. That was what Elsie MacGill did for the “Hurricane” fighter plane in World War II, earning her the nickname of “Queen of the Hurricanes”.
When engineers are designing buildings, bridges, or other large construction projects, a lot of thought is given to the environment. Some of these considerations might seem obvious, like designing a skyscraper in San Francisco to tolerate earthquakes, building a stadium in New York City to hold up not only its own weight but the weight of several feet of snow on the roof, or constructing bridges in any coastal area to be able to tolerate salt spray. Not everything is this straightforward, though. Not only do the structures themselves have to tolerate the environmental conditions they are in, but the equipment that is used to build them must tolerate these conditions as well, specifically the large cranes that are often semi-permanently attached to their construction sites.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this in recent memory was during Typhoon Manghut as it hit Hong Kong. There were several large construction cranes that didn’t fare too well with the high winds. At least one toppled as a result and catching the free-spinning of another on video is more than enough to make you gasp. Other videos of construction cranes surfaced from this typhoon showing some concerning, but surprisingly well-designed, emergency operation of the same type of crane.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, 38,000 gallons of seawater is worth an un-quantifiable amount of knowledge about hurricanes. At the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, [Brian Haus] and his colleagues study hurricanes using a simulator–an enclosed glass tank about the size of a lap-swimming pool. With the flip of a switch, a 1700 hp fan can create winds up to 200 miles per hour—stronger than a baseline category 5 hurricane.
Although there’s currently no cure for hurricanes, understanding how they work goes a long way in forecasting their intensity. Scientists know that hurricanes are fueled by the ocean’s warmth, but there’s still plenty of mystery to them. By studying what happens where the wind meets the water, they think they’ll figure out how surface factors like sea spray and bubbles affect a storm’s intensity and drag coefficient. Surf the break to catch the wave tank in action.
Until there’s a cure for hurricanes, we’ll just have to live with them and engineer our structures to withstand them.
After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.
Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.
The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.
While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.
When living in an area that is prone to natural disasters, it’s helpful to keep something on hand for backup power. While a large number of people chose to use generators, they are often unreliable (or poorly maintained), noisy, produce dangerous carbon monoxide, or run on a fuel supply that might not be available indefinitely. For truly reliable backup power, [Jay] has turned to a battery bank to ride through multi-day power outages.
While the setup doesn’t run his whole house, it isn’t intended to. One of the most critical things to power is the refrigerator, so this build focuses on keeping all of his food properly stored through the power outage. During the days following Hurricane Irma, the system could run the refrigerator for 10-11 hours, and the thermal insulation could keep everything cold or frozen overnight. Rather than using solar panels to charge the batteries, the system instead gets energy from the massive battery of his electric vehicle. [Jay] was out of power for 64 hours, and this system worked for him (and at a better cost) than a generator would have.
With the impact of major storms on many areas this year, we’ve been seeing a lot of interesting ways that people deal with living in areas impacted by these disasters. Besides riding through power outages, we’ve also seen the AARL step in to help, and also taken a look at how robust building codes in these areas help mitigate property damage in the first place.
When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.
Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!
Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.
In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.
It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.
[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.
Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.
For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!
We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.
Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].
Florida is a great place to live, especially around January when it’s sunny and 24 degrees outside (76F) while all of your friends from back home are dealing with scraping ice off of their windshields every morning. In the late summer, though, this pleasant tropical paradise can sometimes take a turn for the worse, because Florida is one of the handful of places that frequently see some of the worst storms on the planet: hurricanes. As a Floridian myself, perhaps I can shed some light on some of the ways that the various local governments and their residents have taken to mitigate the destruction that usually accompanies these intense tropical storms when it seems that, to outsiders, it might be considered unwise to live in such a place.