San Juan days after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty)

A new concept for providing emergency wifi to areas struck by natural disasters has completed a successful test in Puerto Rico. The system uses rubber duck-inspired devices to create what the developers are calling a “ClusterDuck” network for disaster victims to connect to.

It may sound like quackery, but this is a legitimate project backed by IBM. Project Owl [Organize, Whereabouts, Logistics] received $200,000 after winning IBM’s 2018 Call for Code competition.

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The Project Owl team has developed small rubber, waterproof, durable devices that, when deployed throughout an area, create a mesh wifi network that sends an emergency alert to all mobile devices in its parameter, instructing people how to connect to an emergency response portal. (The devices vaguely resemble rubber ducks.) The connecting “Papa Duck” software shows the location of everyone logged on to the network.

Under development, the devices take shape.
Screenshot: IBM Developers

“It doesn’t have to be fancy, crazy military technology; part of what makes a solution profound is being simple and creative.” Project Owl co-founder Brian Knouse told Bloomberg. “My hope is that we are able to set up internet networks quickly at a low cost and that they work.”

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Bloomberg reports that in March, Project Owl tested the system in areas of Puerto Rico that were hit the hardest during 2017's Hurricane Maria. The team used velcro to put the “DuckLink” devices on trees, sand dunes, cars, and balloons—creating a network that spanned one square mile.

Next, the team plans to test the program in Houston, Texas—another city that has been devastated by extreme weather in recent years.

Project Owl hopes to have a working system ready for the U.S. east coast’s hurricane season this summer. The IBM-owned Weather Company released a hurricane forecast on Monday that predicts there will be seven hurricanes this season.

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