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EE Graduate Students Win Big in Erie Hack

The UB ExtremeComms Lab's development of first-ever underwater WiFi network was successful in Erie Hack, a competition aimed to drive innovation in the water technology sector.

Campus News

UB engineering team takes second in Erie Hack finals

UB ExtremeComms Lab team members pose with the “big check” they received after winning second place at the Erie Hack finals in Cleveland. They are, from left, Konstantinos Tountas, Song-Wen Huang, George Sklivanitis, Sarankumar Balakrishnan, Nan Zhang and Yi Cao.

By DAVID J. HILL

Published May 11, 2017

“Our goal is to use this technology for improving early warning and early detection of harmful algae blooms.”
George Sklivanitis, sixth-year PhD candidate and team member
ExtremeComms Lab

A team of UB engineering graduate students whose idea for the first-ever underwater WiFi network — technology that could help detect tsunamis and toxic algae blooms — won second place and $15,000 cash in the Erie Hack finals last week in Cleveland.

The team, called ExtremeComms Lab, was awarded for its idea for a network of aquatic sensors that can quickly transmit information long distances under water, something that scientists have not yet been able to do easily. With nearly 95 percent of the underwater world still unexplored, the technology ExtremeComms Lab is developing is expected to have a wide range of practical applications. These include improvements in tsunami detection, offshore oil and natural gas explorations, and pollution monitoring.

For the Great Lakes, a network of underwater sensors would allow scientists to collect important data, such as the presence of algae, algae concentration and toxicity, thermal bar temperature and the presence of heavy metals.

“Our goal is to use this technology for improving early warning and early detection of harmful algae blooms,” said George Sklivanitis, a sixth-year PhD candidate in electrical engineering and a member of the ExtremeComms Lab group. “The technology can also be used in mobile nodes or drones that move autonomously under the water to collect data and communicate that information to the surface. There are many different applications for this technology.”

A wireless, deep-sea Internet could help prevent environmental disasters such as the toxic Toledo algae bloom, which left 500,000 people without drinking water in 2014, or the water crisis that impacted residents of Flint, Michigan, due to the presence of lead in the city’s water supply.

In addition to Sklivanitis, ExtremeComms Lab team members include Konstantinos Tountas, Nan Zhang, Sarankumar Balakrishnan, Song-Wen Huang and Yi Cao. All are graduate students in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and have been working with the project from one to six years.

They were advised by Stella Batalama, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering; Dimitris Pados, Clifford C. Furnas Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering; and Qiaoqiang Gan, associate professor in electrical engineering.

Two other Buffalo area teams, including one from UB, advanced to the Erie Hack finals. They were WaterWatcher, composed of UB undergraduate students Michael Brown and Morgan Sansbury, and Orbitist, developed by SUNY Fredonia graduate Nicholas Gunner. Nichols School student Lorena James won the grand prize in the high school competition.

ExtremeComms Lab’s idea stood out because it represents a potential breakthrough in underwater technology, team members say. “This is an effort to design the first-ever wireless, cognitive, dynamically optimized central network focusing specifically on issues related to Lake Erie,” said Pados, the faculty adviser.

The group’s second-place finish seemed unexpected compared to how it placed in previous rounds. ExtremeComms Lab placed fourth in the quarterfinals in Buffalo, and ninth in the semifinals in Detroit; only the top nine teams advanced to the final round in Cleveland.

Team members made a few tweaks in their presentation going into the finals. The biggest change was two-fold. First, they brought their prototype with them to give the judges a better idea of the project; second, they improved their explanation of the project and its impact, an incredible challenge due to its complexity. “It was challenging to abstract five years of work in five minutes,” said Sklivanitis.

Tom Ulbrich, executive director of Blackstone LaunchPad at UB, helped coach ExtremeComms Lab team members as they refined their pitch and prototype presentation for the finals.

“We really enjoyed working to help support the ExtremeComms Lab team. I’m excited for their success, but not surprised as they bring two attributes of every successful company I’ve worked with,” said Ulbrich, who is also executive director of the School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. “One, they have built a strong team with a diverse skillset that complements each other well. Two, they are very coachable. They are quick to ask for help and open to considering ideas and suggestions that may improve their product and pitch.”

Joseph Atkinson, professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, also served as a team consultant.

In addition to the $15,000 cash prize, ExtremeComms Lab will receive $10,000 in incubation services to further develop its idea.

Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, congratulated the ExtremeComms Lab team members. “Their work is indicative of the groundbreaking research that occurs every day in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The technology they are developing will have real-world impact that could one day prevent the kinds of water quality issues we have seen around the Great Lakes in the past several years,” Folks said.

Erie Hack was a tech-driven, international water-innovation competition and accelerator program sponsored by the Cleveland Water Alliance. The competition aimed to drive innovation in the water technology sector and engage young people in the creation of the emerging “Blue Economy.”

Participating teams came from several metropolitan areas along Lake Erie, including Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Erie, Toledo and Windsor. The event kicked off in January with a series of ideation sessions held in each participating city, and where community stakeholders drafted challenge statements that Erie Hack projects had to address. Challenge statements included mitigating nutrient loading and its environmental impacts, cultivating resilience in water infrastructure systems, and connecting communities to the value of water.

Erie Hack was organized by the Cleveland Water Alliance. Support for Buffalo’s participation in the event was provided by UB Sustainability and Blackstone LaunchPad, along with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

Published May 12, 2017