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Inside the Weird, Innovative Survivalist Tech at SXSW

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

The Dar-1, a robot with facial recognition. (All photos by Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech).

AUSTIN, Texas — When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, it cut power to the entire lower half of Manhattan and devastated the area’s coastal communities — cutting off basic supplies like heat, food, and gas. Amid the chaos, the Federal Emergency Management Agency partnered with Waze to provide crowd-sourced information about where gas was needed most so resources could be delivered more efficiently.

More than two years and plenty of inclement weather later, it’s clear the disaster preparedness industry has surpassed its brief phase of surreptitious crowdsourcing. This is evidenced by an exhibit, named the Robotic Petting Zoo, held during Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival. The “petting zoo” was less about playing with machines than it was about how they can help humans not die. From 3D-printing repair drones to ultra-portable mini shelters, the growing genre of emergency hardware is proof that Pinterest preppers aren’t the only tech-savvy individuals worried about a coming apocalypse. Below, a survey of the latest survival tech in the works. You know, just in case.

Exo

Exo is a company that creates portable temporary housing. The products are easy to mass-distribute in communities where homes have been wiped out or made inaccessible. The founder of the company, Michael McDaniel, was inspired to launch this concept after witnessing the shelter his family members were provided during Hurricane Katrina. “He saw people sleeping on cots in the Superdome and thought: is this the best the U.S. can do?,” Exo technology director Thomas Brady told Yahoo Tech. In 2014 McDaniel launched a successful Indiegogo campaign. This year, his Austin-based company is showing off the resulting product.

The design of the fiberglass and plastic huts is inspired by the shape of a coffee cup. Take off the lid, turn it upside-down, and you can stack it on top of others. In the case of the Exo, you can place about 14 of its pods on the back of a semi-truck to be delivered somewhere, instead of just one trailer home. Currently the base units cost about $6,000 each—much cheaper than mobile homes, which typically start at around $40,000.

These pods are equipped with foldable beds and are unlocked via NFC-enabled wristbands. Each has an electronic sign that can be programed to display a room number or a warning. All of those displays are connected via a mesh network that can be controlled remotely by a web app — helpful in case you need to send word of another threat. 

nCap

As the world comes to rely more and more on digital communication, often a generator is not enough to save the day in a disaster situation. The nCap, on the other hand, is its own solar-charging Wi-Fi system and battery charger, able to mimic a small cell tower in the event that an area’s coverage is blacked out. 

It runs on military-grade lithium batteries that are bulletproof and can withstand temperatures ranging from below 30 to more than 140 degrees fahrenheit. On one charge, the batteries can juice a laptop up to 200 times and a phone up to 1,000 times. Not to mention, the nCap itself can be re-upped by connecting to a solar-charged blanket that requires just 4 hours of sunlight a day. As CEO of nCap technologies Anthony Sutera puts it, “It’s great to play in the lab, but when you get out in the real world, most digital stuff doesn’t work too well.”

Even more useful, the system will soon be able to be controlled via a suite of apps that allows the user to dictate what kind of connectivity the device can be used for. So, if you just want to enable a community to text message one another, rather than surf the Internet, you can simply program that limitation in remotely.

Because each nCap runs in the tens of thousands of dollars, Sutera is currently working with the World Bank and other government organizations to consider donating his invention to major disaster areas. 

Ilumiloon

Intentionally one of the most low-tech solutions of its peers, Illumiloon is a simple disaster-preparedness kit that allows victims to signal their needs via a modern-day smoke signal. It includes a set of tethers and a helium canister that’s pre-attached to a bright silver balloon, along with color-coded signaling material to communicate the need for food, water, or medical attention.

The project is part of an effort from Yale undergraduates Edward Wang and Jane Smyth, who wanted to create a simple communication system after seeing the chaos of Hurricane Sandy. Smyth recalls seeing her hometown of Long Beach, N.Y., in disrepair, and feeding information to her family via phone. ”I was at school, but my family had no idea that FEMA was set up at City Hall and you could get food there,” she told Yahoo Tech. “If they hadn’t been able to get in touch with me, they’d have had no way of knowing that.”

MUPPette

MUPPette, a drone that 3D prints structures while in flight, is a relatively new project from the Los Angeles-based architecture team. They set out to create a printer that was unconstrained by dimension, and ended up 3D printing a 3D printer that attaches to a hexacopter. Rather than plastic, they opted for the MUPPette’s sculpting material to be made of cement and small styrofoam balls— highly stress resistant. 

Along the way, the team encountered a few unforeseen obstacles, and the contraption currently only sputters out cement like a ketchup bottle. But in the long-term, associate Jared Shier imagines the MUPPette being useful for emergency repair in dangerous situations.

“If you had a levee that was damaged, you could send one of these out there and you can start exuding the concrete,” he told Yahoo Tech. “You could rely on a hexacopter and not have to put anyone’s lives in danger in trying to repair a broken levee.”

Dar-1

Dar-1 is a crab-like robotic device made with with the ability to record and recognize faces. Step about a foot back, look it straight at its square camera — powered by a credit card-sized computer — and it’ll lock its gaze onto your head, moving from side to side to keep track of it. If you move your face toward it, it’ll recoil into its laser cut metal legs like a live animal. Its inventor, roboticist Ray Renteria, envisions that Dar-1 could very well be used to both comfort and report on people in areas “you might not be able to send a a bunch of cameras into.” Dar-1, he told Yahoo Tech, can crawl in, “detect a face, and say, ‘Hey, there’s someone in here.’”

Renteria admits, however, that he built Dar-1 for one main reason: “I like him,” he said. “To me, he has the intrinsic value of a pet.”

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