Beat the Blaze Hackathon – MDE Project seeks to improve communication for elite wildfire fighters

A rendering showing how an INFERNODES device could be clipped to a yellow firefighter's helmet.

Due to the isolated environments in which they work, firefighting teams face frequent communication challenges. Four Harvard graduate students set out to develop a device that could streamline communications, helping firefighters better control wildfires and reducing their risk of injury.

“Out there in the wilderness, these firefighters have no internet access, so a lot of the tools that are available to civilians are not available to hotshots and smoke jumpers,” explained Margaret Zhou, a student in the master’s in design engineering program (MDE), offered jointly by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science and Graduate School of Design. “They still use radio, and it is pretty outdated. The radio is constantly backlogged with information trying to get from one group to another.”

For their collaborative MDE studio project, Zhou and teammates Katrina Armistead, Kelsey Burhans, and Maya Chatila developed INFERNODES, an interconnected, frequency-based, passive communication system of lightweight internet-of-things devices that attach to firefighters’ helmets.

Their project was one of 10 finalists in the recent Beat the Blaze Hackathon, sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network, which challenged teams to develop creative solutions to deliver full situational awareness to wildfire first responders.