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From LEGO To Lasers: Kids Invent The Coolest Things

Jul 28, 2023Jul 28, 2023

Politicians and pundits talk about America's crumbling infrastructure. But a team of scientific-minded Ohioans wanted to do something.

That's some prototype: LEGO elements and laser sensors demonstrate the future of warehouse roof ... [+] safety monitoring as envisioned by FIRST LEGO League Challenge participants 8 to Automate.

The research cadre in 2019 visited with local officials across the state and in their hometown of Dublin, Ohio. They conferred with construction experts, and interviewed architects, a hive-mind-hammer in search of a nail.

Soon enough, they found it: one big problem, begging for a solution.

Every year, across North America, roughly 4,000 flat roofs, such as those atop warehouses and box stores, cave in under the weight of snow. The team devised an automated early-detection system using fiberoptic laser sensors and a prototype was built.

By seventh and eighth graders. Using LEGOs.

"Our research found that flat-roof collapses are a real-world problem," said team leader, 13-year-old Malcolm Masri. "It needed a unique solution."

That one has now emerged courtesy of a band of ambitious youngsters certainly can be considered unique, not to mention impressive – and important.

In many jurisdictions, flat-roof construction codes have been amended to account for heavier snow loads. But many codes have not changed, and countless older roofs remain vulnerable. These require ad hoc, unreliable, costly and dangerous shovel-based solutions. An additional concern: in a warehouse fire, flat roofs, usually within minutes, become unsafe for firefighters.

Masri, along with a few of his classmates at Willard Grizzell Middle School, have created a patent-pending Roof Evaluating Strain Tool (REST) system able to detect when open-truss beams are beginning to even slightly buckle. Calling themselves "8 to Automate," adopting a pet LEGO-built octopus mascot, "Ocho," the Dublin, Ohio kids were among 20 other semi-finalist teams, out of more than 1,000 total competitors, recognized in June at the tenth annual FIRST LEGO League Challenge's Global Innovation Awards presented by Disney. The 8 to Automate team placed second, one of two runners-up.

The winning team, Aldeatrón Robotix, hailing from The Canary Islands, Spain, designed eco-friendly, temperature-controlled building blocks; the other runner-up, QuickBots, a team from Dayton, Ohio, invented a thermochromic cooling agent for scalding hot playground equipment.

Part robotics community, part STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) talent pipeline feeder, the nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the brainchild of inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen.

He started it to encourage and inspire K-12 students – and not just so-called gifted ones – to seek out STEM education and to pursue careers in these fields. One of several hands-on FIRST programs, FIRST LEGO League (of which LEGO Education is a founding partner) comprises more than half-a-million students in 110-plus countries.

Engineering fundamentals are built, LEGO Duplo brick by LEGO Duplo brick. Eventually, program participants branch into related fields, including robotics. Students start in FIRST as early as pre-K and gradually increase in skill and competition level. Masri began at age 9. His teammates – Arwen Zhang, Sathvik Allipuram, Sai Rishik Lingam, Liam Swayne, Maxwell Imamura and Anya Zhang – were a mix of newcomers and FIRST LEGO League veterans. Masri's father, Farid, a mechanical engineer, is one of 300,000 FIRST volunteers, as is mom, Judi. Both give their time as mentors on the 8 to Automate team.

"Over the last four years in FIRST LEGO League, it has been wonderful seeing students develop in-depth research skills," said Judi Masri, who researches global equities as a state pension fund portfolio manager.

"Studying a problem in depth develops critical thinking," she said. "Our students’ sense of leadership, self-confidence, and their ability to communicate, all have grown immensely. These skills will carry over into their education and careers."

Kunaal Gudavali, a high school junior, also advised the 8 to Automate team. Like many mentors, he's a FIRST LEGO League alumnus.

No doubt the elders buttressed the project, providing a key support beam; but the kids bore the heavy load. All of the work on the prototype was done by the students, with the exception of some power-sawing to cut material to size, and the setting up of a 3D printer. It also should be underscored that the LEGO elements were incorporated for fun and as a nod to their formative influence over the years but also as a way to more fully animate the model warehouse. As far as the other elements, meanwhile, there was no playing around: wooden columns, cut and painted, were affixed to the base using 3D-printed supports; a clear polycarbonate sheet, lined with PVC waterproofing membrane, was applied on top as a roof allowing for overhead view of the trusses; a fiberoptic laser light source demonstrated how a real system would be implemented.

Of the FIRST organization, founded in 1989, Kamen has said: "Kids often come in not knowing what to expect, of the program, nor of themselves and they leave, even after one season, with a vision, confidence and a sense they can create their own future."

In the middle of summer 2020, with all that is happening in the world, few are focused on the proliferation of flat roofs susceptible to unevenly distributed snow loads.

However, there is a renewed focus around the world on how kids will be learning going forward. Competitive, hands-on programs like FIRST are a fun and exciting way for students to learn the types of skills not always taught traditionally, educators say.

Prompted by FIRST LEGO League and their own childlike wonder, these students were able to figure out what insurance companies, public safety officials and builders have known for decades, that is, just how many cheaply made flat-roofs are at risk; not yet fully known – how best to address the problem.

Each year, the roofs covering American buildings – warehouses, box stores but also parking garages, civic arenas, churches, schools and healthcare facilities – are aging out of viability. Gradual, material wear and tear can accumulate over the years like an eight-foot-high snowdrift in the parking lot of a Cheektowaga, N.Y. strip mall.

Fiber optic sensing technology has been used to monitor strain over the years with a few generations of technology coming into use but the 8 to Automate team were determined to create something ground breaking; a system that could detect the smallest load, continuously, across the entire roof (not just a sample of scattered spots deemed critical) and, importantly, could be implemented quickly, at a low-cost in any building, akin to putting up smoke alarms (as opposed to some extensive retro-fitting job). This led them to research fiber bragg grating (FBG) based sensors, microscopic gratings that act as mirrors, down through which light travels. As fiber is strained, each mirror reflects a portion of light, signaling information back to a computer system that converts and interprets miniscule changes indicating even the slightest open-truss beam compromise.

Building owners can be alerted not only as to when it's time to pursue a snow-removal solution but also precisely in which areas to focus.

In addition to property damage caused by collapses, there's the added toll on human beings routinely getting injured slipping and falling. Additionally, too much shoveling, or sub-optimally executed shoveling, can, as it turns out, actually exacerbate a structural accident in waiting: the shovel scraping damages critical roof waterproofing membrane, contributing to the potential for dangerous cave-in conditions.

Fiber optic sensors are better than conventional electric strain gauges or load cells because they are lighter weight, require less power, are resistant to electromagnetic interference, have higher sensitivity, and are easier to install, said Jim Blake, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Fiber Optics at Texas A&M University, and also the president of Grid Evolution Technologies.

According to Farid Masri, at least one roof management expert had informed the team that no reliable rooftop, fiberoptic-laser-light-load-monitoring system exists.

(Left to right) Sathvik Allipuram and Maxwell Imamura of the FIRST LEAGO League Challenge team, 8 to ... [+] Automate, work on more than just a grade school science project but nothing short of a major fix for the nation's numerous flat-roof structures.

After testing their prototype with help from engineers at The Ohio State University, the design required one final tweak – the strain sensors would be affixed across the entire roof using polyimide tape, with a microcontroller embedded below the center of the roof.

The newly invented system could indeed represent a solution to a long-standing problem, said Anthony Massari, Professor of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering at OSU and who lent his input.

"Though codes are improving to make buildings safer, they remain a compromise between safety and costs," Massari said.

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) standards have been updated to accommodate heavier snow loads but not all buildings use this new standard. A cubic foot of snow can weigh up to 21 pounds, with density and thickness variations due to drifting and melting, so just a visual inspection is not effective, experts said.

Roughly $4 billion in insurance claims each year are associated with roof collapses, according to various industry trade group estimates. At least one-quarter, and perhaps as many as three-fourths, of these incidents are due to snow, or combinations of snow, wind and rain. Most claims are tied to roof collapses generally; but they also include repairs to the roof, as well as loss of business income.

In their research, the 8 to Automate student engineers learned of a 2015 warehouse roof collapse in nearby Groveport, Ohio. About 70 employees were inside at the time; luckily, no one was seriously injured. However, millions of dollars worth of goods were buried in snow and debris, unable to be salvaged.

Loss of life has occurred. In February of 2006, the roof of an exhibition hall in the Polish city of Katowice collapsed under heavy snow, killing more than 60 people.

Sports stadiums have had some noteworthy but mercifully non fatal cave-ins over the years.

In January 1978, following a ten-day snowstorm, the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed a mere six hours after a University of Connecticut basketball game. By a twist of fate, the crew that normally would have been inside (changing the court into an NHL rink) was in the midst of a once-a-year, three-straight-days-of-hoops break.

Prior to its demolition six years ago, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home to the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, endured a series of collapses of its inflatable roof, made of Teflon-coated fiberglass/fabric, including one in 2010 captured by a CBS film crew.

That same year, the ILT Stadium Southland in Invercargill, New Zealand, saw its roof collapse after a heavy snow. No one was injured but the multi-purpose venue was out of commission for four years (displacing the Southland Sharks of the New Zealand Basketball League) until a new facility could be built.

Municipalities in regions prone to winter storms have endured some scary conditions with multiple cave-ins occurring across the region, straining first responders.

Last winter, across Minnesota and North Dakota, a wicked Mother Nature's brew of snow, sleet, rain and wind created dangerously wet and heavy snow, leading to several roof collapses. The roof of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, in Moorhead, Minn., came down – on a Sunday morning – when hundreds would have been at services which, thank heaven, had been canceled.

In Buffalo, N.Y., in 2014, a freak Thanksgiving-weekend storm brought (in some sections, as much as) eight feet of snow and led to at least a dozen collapses citywide. The abnormal, even for Buffalo, conditions prompted evacuations from at least one nursing home and several trailer communities. Then conditions worsened, when the weather turned warmer, creating wet, heavier snow loads. Worst-case fears were not realized but residents and business owners endured a frightening few days.

Codes for residences and businesses, especially in snowy places, are stricter in contrast to warehouses where they are less strict. That's because, in that cost/safety equation, it is presumed there is less of a likelihood of a human life at risk.