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Disaster Response in a Box, Revisited
Jamais Cascio, 18 Oct 05

mps2.jpgJeremy gave a quick pointer to SkyBuilt Power's Mobile Power Station (MPS), and it really does look like a WorldChanger's dream: combining modular solar panels, wind microturbines, batteries, and plug-ins for fuel cells and biofuel-friendly diesel engines, the MPS can generate a constant 150 kilowatts, can operate both off-grid and in parallel with grid power, is rugged enough to be dropped via parachute, and requires so little maintenance that a solar/wind unit has been operating continuously without being touched for over a year.

The MPS and the inevitable competitors will see abundant use in the post-Katrina era. But thinking of the MPS solely in terms of stand-alone power misses its greater potential. The MPS is the final component needed to create the distributed disaster response kit. If we put the pieces together, we could have a system that provides both short-term and long-term support for a disaster-struck community's power, water and communication.

We've covered a number of the other components before, and they're worth linking to again:

  • The Net.Relief.Kit is a communications hub built specifically for relief work, combining voice and Internet satellite links with a WiFi hub. It's not meant for long-term use, but as a ready-to-go communication system for immediate-response workers.
  • Inveneo provides similar services, but over a wider range and longer period of time. Inveneo is built to link into a local GSM network and provide Internet and voice communications across an otherwise unserved region -- all using Free/Open Source tools.
  • A single MPS would provide more than enough power to run the reverse-osmosis water purification kit now in operation in the Maldives. 100 watts is enough to purify 500 liters of brackish or disease-laden water every day.
  • If the water is really polluted -- or in such limited supply that otherwise unusable sources, such as urine, must be considered -- NASA's Water Recovery System is available for relief work, and can purify 35 gallons of water from any source in a day, with a power requirement of just under a kilowatt.

    Alex's Beyond Relief essay covered in some detail just how and why we need to rethink the way we engage in disaster and emergency relief efforts.

    I'm less enthusiastic about the fact that the CIA has invested in SkyBuilt Power, however.

    That the US government would be interested in such a system is hardly surprising -- the field applications for military units are fairly obvious. And an investment by In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital arm, doesn't necessarily mean anything more than the government wanting to make sure that the company continues to operate. But the reputation and history of the CIA is such that many of the groups and places most apt to need a system like this are likely to resist the offer simply due to the CIA's involvement. How do you think the residents of the areas hit by the massive earthquake in Pakistan earlier this month would respond to discovering that the odd-looking box plugged into the hospital and water pumps was "built by" the CIA, for example?

    Even though the CIA/In-Q-Tel investment is likely to be essentially innocuous, amounting to little more than a regular client for specialized versions, it will probably be enough to trigger suspicion in many around the world. If so, it's unfortunate; the MPS is in many respects something right out of a WorldChanging post, and there are many places around the world where such a system would be transformative.

    SkyBuilt, in their material about the MPS, draws an analogy with the PC as a platform. The open architecture makes is possible for other vendors to build add-on components, confident that they'll work together properly. If we're lucky, the MPS will have another parallel to the PC world in the near future: the open architecture will mean that clones and work-alikes and more feature-rich competitors (or at least competitors without the CIA baggage) will spring up all over.

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    Although I am in agreement with you about the world being suspicious of anything with the CIA connection, I wonder about exactly what that connection means. Is it possible to use the MPS in some way other than described?

    I sincerely hope that this component, as you have demonstrated, will become as common as the PC and help the world change.


    Posted by: Jacqueline CASCIO on 19 Oct 05

    Let me see if I can use the same argument structure in another context:  The MRE was developed for the military.  The military often kills people.  Therefore, disaster victims should refuse food aid in the form of MRE's.

    Nope, doesn't work.

    Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 20 Oct 05

    You're not reading closely, E-P -- nobody here said that people should refuse to use the MPS, only that the CIA's investment in the company will make some people suspicious. The overseas reputation of the CIA is such that a connection, no matter how innocuous, undermines the legitimacy of the connected person or system for many communities.

    There are a number of other flaws in your analogy -- e.g., the military is not the CIA; the MPS was not developed for the CIA, but was embraced afterwards -- but they're secondary to the point that the only person saying anything about "should refuse" is you...

    Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Oct 05

    Thanks for your interesting comments. Actually SkyBuilt devleoped the MPS several years ago, unrelated to any government involvement, by three regular guys in the old Arlington Bowling Alley - Typical start up.

    I never heard of In-Q-Tel until recently. Their recent investment is really helpful to us. They are an organization that serves not only the CIA but many government agencies. Also, the CIA is not an investor. Hope this clarifies some things.

    Regards, Dave Muchow, President, SkyBuilt.

    Posted by: Dave Muchow on 20 Oct 05

    I was just watching a neander...whatever did we survive?
    But the sad part is that in some parts of this not so green earth the box is needed...refugees at one time spent months in makeshift they spend years...why not use the kevlars and technologies to help make things better, water, solar heating, communications, electronic classes teaching the basics of health, water filtration and internet wifi comunications linked directly to hospitals, let's help them help themselves or we will not be able to's better than favellas...or cité soleil...

    Posted by: jed on 21 Oct 05

    Hi Dave,

    I think your MPS looks great. Any thoughts on how it may be applicable to rural power generation in the underdeveloped world, even in everyday applications rather than purely disaster relief?

    Posted by: san on 22 Oct 05

    MPS is certainly an impressive piece of technology,and its potential will far outweigh any suspicions raised by the association mentioned.But i do look forward to a response to Jeff Pintos' assertion that it will produce 150w and not 150Kw.that comes from the initial blog "plug-and-play". I hope he is wrong.

    Posted by: Akin Afolayan on 24 Oct 05



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