Students win design prize for post-storm signal system

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Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. in the fall of 2012 leaving the Northeast with an immense challenge: recovery and relief efforts. The design project developed by Yale students Kamya Jagadish, Edward Wang and Jane Smyth — Illumiloon: Balloon Signaling for Storm Relief — helps communities help themselves in the wake of a natural disaster.

In Sandy’s aftermath, Yale’s Design for America (DFA) studio a student-led organization that uses design to solve local and social problems challenged student members to create a design-based solution to local natural disaster recovery. Sharing this common interest, students and DFA members Kamya Jagadish, Edward Wang and Jane Smyth whose hometown on Long Island experienced severe damage by Sandy came together to take on this challenge.

After gathering information and anecdotes from New Haven residents and the Yale-New Haven response team that experienced Sandy’s effects, the Illumiloon team identified communication breakdown after a natural disaster as a major problem that could potentially be improved through design.

Kamya, a senior environmental engineering major interested in urban infrastructure — and specifically stormwater management — says: “We quickly realized that communication was a huge issue, just in terms of having appropriate channels of communication. In Long Island during Hurricane Sandy, for example, there were tons of resources, tons of medical attention available for people, but people didn’t know about it.”

Kamya Jagadish sketches gas release mechanism ideas.

The problem was communication. The solution, Illumiloon: Balloon Signaling for Storm Relief. This simple yet effective design uses rubber weather balloons fitted with color-coded bands to indicate needs in disaster relief efforts.

Ideally, these self-inflating helium balloons are distributed throughout communities as part of disaster survival kits. Each balloon signals a specific need (food, water, medical attention), allowing survivors to play an active role in relief efforts by creating a communication system both between community members and for emergency responders.

“The part that we found most exciting about Illumiloon,” Kamya says, “is not just that it could help first-responders, but that it really engages the community — to have that amount of community involvement and engagement not only makes the relief process more comfortable, but also eases it and makes it more efficient.”

In 2014, the Illumiloon team gained national recognition when it entered and won the Disruptive Design 4 Disasters Competition hosted by the Field Innovation Team (FIT), an organization affiliated with FEMA that develops innovative solutions to natural disasters on the ground.

For Kamya and her fellow students, winning the award was a major turning point in the evolution of their project, and the first step in making their idea a reality: “It’s very easy at Yale — and in general — to have a design that is conceptual, and things don’t become concrete or tangible very easily. So this was the point when we realized we really needed to keep going with this project because there was potential in the idea.”

Currently, the team is working to develop a physical prototype that tests their idea through disaster simulations run by the FIT. The physical prototyping process is the necessary next step to advance the project but also very challenging as the students work to test individual prototypes while simultaneously having to figure out how to scale up and manufacture thousands of balloons.

While the students fine-tune the design and scalability of the project, they continue to explore how Illumiloon can be applied most effectively to communities such as New Haven. As the team seeks to answer these questions, the New Haven community has proved tremendously valuable.

“We’ve spent a lot of time exploring New Haven and understanding different people’s attachments to the city. We’ve talked with a lot of New Haven residents to figure out why people stay there, why people leave, what people need. We saw how applicable our design could be in a New Haven-type of setting.”

Illumiloon is intended to be able to be used by the poor, elderly and children (PEC) — generally the most underserved populations in disaster-relief scenarios. As Kamya notes, “There are millions of apps that can be used for relief after a disaster hits, but there are also a lot of people who may not have a smartphone or may not be capable of using that app. We wanted to make sure that everyone had access to this communication channel.”

Since winning the Disruptive Design 4 Disasters competition, Illumiloon has continued to gain recognition within the larger design space. This past March, the team presented at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, TX in partnership with the FIT where coverage of the event praised the design as “one of the simplest but potentially most useful robots on display.” Illumiloon has also been named the “invention of the week” by The success of the project reflects Kamya’s and her fellow students’ passion for design as a catalyst for change:

“We became very inspired by the fact that design can change things so drastically — with the right design, small changes can make a huge impact.”

Illu­miloon shows how our inge­nu­ity can improve cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, and yet under­lines the real­ity that we’re bet­ter off con­tain­ing the dam­age we do to our­selves. Each brilliant adaptation method may be a reminder that unless we make bigger changes in cutting emissions, we’ll lock into a situation impossible for coastal populations to adapt.

 Illumiloon: Balloon Signaling for Storm Relief


Early sketch of an Illumiloon kit.


Illumiloon kit contents and instructions.