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St. Vrain Valley students win $10,000 grant to design emergency beacon system
By Amy Bounds, Staff Writer, Daily Camera
A team of 13 St. Vrain Valley School District students taking senior design will have a lot more money than usual for their big class project.
The students, who attend Erie and Longmont's Skyline high schools, recently won a $10,000 grant to design an affordable, portable emergency beacon system.
The idea is a system that could be adopted by a community, with the beacons sold or given to as many as residents as possible, giving them a better chance of rescue during floods, fires or other large-scale natural disasters that interrupt cellphone service.
"It's connecting what they learn in the classroom to help the outside world," said Erie senior design teacher Kelsey Rasmussen. "Our students have a lot they can offer now. We don't have to wait until after they graduate from college."
The grant is from the Lemelson-MIT Program, which gave grants to 15 teams across the country to solve open-ended problems in their communities. St. Vrain Valley is the only team in Colorado to win the grant.
"It's a huge opportunity," said Katie Huonder, a senior at Erie High School. "We have a lot of money to work with. It definitely raises the bar for us."
The St. Vrain Valley students started working on the grant proposal this summer, brainstorming a variety of ideas before settling on using drones in combination with beacons. One of their rejected ideas was using drones to deliver food, but there were legal issues with that.
For the yearlong project, the students need to design three main elements: the beacon, the attachment for drones and a program or device that emergency responders can use to access the information.
"It's a really complicated project," said Hogan Warlock, a junior at Erie High School.
To keep the beacons inexpensive, they plan to attach GPS systems to the drones and power the beacons with easy-to-find, nine-volt batteries.
"We want to make the beacons as lightweight and cheap and small as possible," Warlock said. "We want the beacon to last for 30 days."
They're also planning to attempt to make the drone attachment light enough that it can work with the typical drones owned by community members and not just the more heavy-duty version that emergency services uses.
They're getting help from community mentors as they work on the design, including a radio communication expert at DigitalGlobe who suggested writing a program that allows two or more drones to work together to pinpoint the location of the emergency beacon.
In June, all the grant projects will be showcased at EurekaFest at the Massachusetts Institute Technology.
"They're going to get a feel for what engineers really do," said Skyline senior design teacher Scott Duckworth.