Imagine that a natural disaster hits your town, wiping out communications for the region. The power is out and phones are dead. Where do you go for help?
For their innovative solution to this problem, a team of middle school students earned $20,000 in the fourth annual FIRST LEGO League's (FLL) Global Innovation Award competition. FLL was created by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to inspire young problem solvers.
In this year's challenge, “The Fury of Nature,” teams of kids aged 9–15 were asked to invent a new way to prepare, stay safe and recover after a natural disaster.
The Brain Busters, a group of six students from Sherborn, Mass., took top honors in the competition at the awards ceremony Wednesday, beating out more than 500 teams from around the world.
Their idea was simple, but effective: a balloon-based notification sign. In their concept, a large balloon is filled with helium and tethered to the ground by a long cord. As it rises upward, it bears a sign that's attached to a lightweight rod, showing people where to go for relief.
“FLL was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but we love it,” a team member said at the awards ceremony.
Speaking at the ceremony, Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST — and perhaps best known as the inventor of the Segway — noted that these students continue to amaze him.
"When young people are given a platform and support for exploring answers to today’s pressing social problems, they are able to create innovative solutions that will ultimately improve lives,” he said. “Today, they have shown that solving problems together is a fun, rewarding adventure.”
Runners-up included the Robotic Raiders, from Williamsburg, Iowa; and Robotec, from Santiago, Chile. The Raiders envisioned a "cyclone survivor" board game that can educate players on how to survive and recover from a tornado. The game can be customized for other disasters, such as ice storms, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Team Robotec created a tsunami evacuation system: an LED-based, solar-powered lighting system that could be installed on major city streets to direct relief efforts in case of a power outage. The disaster-themed challenge was personal for many members of the team who had survived a magnitude-8.8 earthquake in 2010.
Both runners-up took home a $5,000 prize for their efforts.
The awards were provided by sponsors Booz Allen Hamilton, John Deere, Rockwell Collins, the International Association of Emergency Managers, and Qualcomm.