FIRST Lego League Team the Supersonic Falcons won a nomination for the Global Innovation Award with their environmental project, the Rain Catchment Device. Clearwater Innovation interviewed the Supersonic Falcons and is grateful for their water conservation efforts!
What problem are you trying to solve? What was your inspiration?
Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues faced by the modern world. The overall lack of fresh water, combined with the increasing number of droughts due to climate change makes water scarcity not only a current problem, but an issue that will become drastically more severe as time progresses. With the human population growing constantly and plans being made to create larger, more compact cities, the world will need a large amount of water and as things stand, it will not have it. As water is a limiting factor for the growth of the population, a lack of it will drastically slow down the progress being made on creating the city of the future as well as limit the number of people that may live there. However, humanity has access to one largely untapped water source: rainwater. While rainwater harvesting technology already exists, it is exceptionally inefficient and underutilized. The current rainwater collection system collects a mere fraction of what it could if it were to be optimized. This untapped potential inspired us to create a Rainwater Collection Device which can maximize the rainwater collection from every household and building. A device that can collect more rainwater from a given area than ever before.
What is your solution?
Our team has designed an automatic Rain Catchment Device (RCD), which can be mounted on the roof of a house or a building to maximize rainwater harvesting for domestic and commercial use. A rain sensor attached to the Catchment System makes up the RCD. The RCD is mounted on the roof of the house at an angle to better channel water into the rain gutters. When it rains, the rain sensor on the top of the house detects water and automatically extends the catchment. The extension significantly maximizes the surface area of the roof for collecting the rainwater. The rainwater falls on the catchment and is channeled into the gutters of the roof, which are connected to rainwater collection and storage units like rain barrels, or underground water storage systems to be used later. When the rain stops, the rain sensor stops detecting water and automatically retracts the catchment device to its original position. The RCD significantly increases the amount of rainwater collected.
Catchment Design: The mechanism of the catchment has three folding arms, each with two joints rotating off of one beam at the base of the catchment. This base is attached to the roof of the house. The ends of the three arms attach to a bar, which also attaches to the cloth itself so when extended, the arms carry the cloth out to catch the rainwater. The bar is driven by a gear rack and pinion mechanism, which holds onto the bar and makes the arms extend. On the base is a rolling bar (with cloth attached to it) that spins. This allows the cloth to roll up tightly against the base when retracted, but expand when extended.
Sensor Design: We designed and attached a Rain Sensor to the Rain Catchment Device to make its operation automatic. We used an Arduino board, a water sensor, and a stepper motor connected to the catchment device to build the Rain Sensor. An Arduino (a mini computer) can be coded to control any modules connected to it, so we connected the water sensor and a stepper motor (modules) to Arduino and programmed it to control the two modules. When the water sensor detects rain, the Arduino directs the stepper motor to turn and extend the catchment. When the sensor does not detect rain, the stepper motor is directed to turn in the opposite direction, thereby closing the catchment. Similarly, we designed a wind sensor to detect the wind speed. The idea is to retract the RCD when hit by heavy winds to prevent damage. We also designed (in CAD) and 3D printed a box to safely house the Arduino part of the Rain Sensor.
What challenges have you faced?
This year when we were first coming up with project ideas, we had some pretty cool ideas. The only issue was that some of them had already been invented. For example, we wanted to make a smart fridge where you would enter what foods you were putting in and the fridge would suggest what to eat depending on expiration dates. We soon learned that there were already apps that did this for you.
Another tough challenge was that our motor for opening and closing the device would not have enough torque to turn the gears to open the device. To solve the problem, we tried many different programs but in the end we made it to work by switching some inputs in the declaration of the motor. Finally, it worked. Similarly, we went through multiple rounds of catchment designing before we had the final catchment design that worked for us.
Also, in the middle of one of our presentations to an elementary school class. The prototype to our project stopped working just before the presentation until some of our teammates were able to fix the problem and our mini RCD was able to unfold. Luckily it was just in a presentation, not a competition.
The biggest challenge of all has probably been qualifying for worlds but not being able to go because of the shutdown. Our team does very well under pressure so any challenges we did face seemed minor.
How did you utilize your home resources to develop this solution?
Our team designed a model for the RCD by using various home resources. First, we used Legos for building the house to hold the catchment and the catchment mechanism. We used plastic from plastic bags to simulate the cloth for the catchment. Then, we attached the catchment to the house using Velcro. Finally, for demonstration purposes, we used small mason jars to represent the rain barrels and straws to represent the gutter flow. However, we did 3D print some features of our model; for example, a custom box to hold the Arduino and circuits was designed and 3D printed by one of our team members. So, most of our project was built from things available at home.
Have you shared your solution with the professionals? What feedback did you receive?
We reached out to multiple experts with experience in water management and water conservation and shared our project with them to get their feedback. We met with professionals from Carlsbad Municipal Water District, Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to mention a few.
Most of the professionals we talked to liked our project and agreed that our project could help save an abundance of rain water across the globe. They thought that our solution was unique for water conservation and they had not come across any other solution like ours.
They also gave us some pointers and suggestions on how to improve our project for example to think about mosquito and algae prevention in the collected and stored water and prompted us to think about large scale water storage and for purification of water for potable uses (for human consumption).
What advice would you give to other students who might be interested in solving water-related problems?
Even though it doesn’t sound fun, research can be really helpful and interesting. Start by researching what issue you are interested in and figure out what inventions already exist. Outreach and communication are also very important. By talking to other people and professionals about your invention, you can realize so many ways to improve your design. The most important advice of all is to have fun. If you are passionate and excited about your project, others will be too.
Team Members: Artem Drohobytsky, Dean Sauerwine, Drew Limberg, Quinn Churchill, Racquel Crook, Rohan Soni, Samitha Senthilkumar, Suchir Sambhavaram
School: Aviara Oaks Middle School, Carlsbad, CA