Project Spotlight: MARLEy

MARLEy is an Augmented Reality (AR) tool that enhances online learning for students.

Written by: Tif Ho

helpful-engineering-marley-online-learning-b

Online learning.

The Challenge

In December 2019, a cluster of COVID-19 cases appeared in China. By March 2020, COVID-19 had spread throughout the world. Soon afterward, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a worldwide pandemic. Following the WHO’s declaration, schools across the world began to close. As a result, a record number of students have been away from in-person learning for an unprecedented amount of time. 

For high school students, including MARLEy team member Aryadeepta Dee, the lack of in-person learning means missing out on important developmental experiences. These experiences are particularly important for subjects such as chemistry, which require a practical laboratory environment. While Google Classrooms, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other video chat software have brought students together and helped to mitigate the learning problem – current online learning tools have failed to engage students.

A chemistry lab experiment in a conventional classroom setting, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Solution

MARLEy was born out of the MIT Beat the Pandemic II Challenge. Project Lead, Matthew Henricks, states that the conceptualization of MARLEy began as a means to address two questions:

  1. How do we create cohesive learning so that students can learn things together in a fun environment?
  2. How do we retain the hands-on chemistry laboratory learning experience in an online world?

Henricks explains, “I was personally wrestling with three possible ideas that had captured my interest. But as an Engineer and Physicist, I fell in love with the ideas that the initial team started tossing around about MARLEy.” 

MARLEy is currently in the prototyping phase. It will be a web application for a multi-user, Augmented Reality (AR) laboratory experience. This application will provide students with a common interface for interactive experiences, hands-on learning, and real-time feedback. The application will rely on Unity as the development framework, as this is the most mature game engine and easiest to implement. Additionally, MARLEy will use HTML5 scripting, the latest version of the HTML, which is used in web browsers. HTML5 offers several benefits, including increased user accessibility across various screen sizes, resolutions, orientations, and devices.

The web application will require a simple setup of laptop and webcam. Educators and students will be able to upgrade the setup to include physical lab equipment replications with the use of physical objects and 3D-rendered models. This will be made possible through easy to implement sensors and Marker tracking. The final product will include several free resources. However, educators (whether they are parents who are homeschooling, private schools, or public schools) will be able to tailor resources to fit their needs through a subscription basis. Additionally, MARLEy will be modular, which will allow for quick integration of additional lab-based courses. Ultimately, MARLEy is intended as a solution which enables students to continue their learning goals during the pandemic. Future applications of MARLEy also include the possibility of making this software “the new normal” as a go-to learning tool.

MIT Beat the Pandemic II Challenge.

The Team

Henricks, the project lead, is a US Navy member with experience in small team leadership, program management, engineering, and physics. He currently serves as the face of MARLEy, helping to direct volunteers and resources towards the project. However, his role is ever-evolving and may change as the team continues to restructure their focus. 

The team has extensive experience in project and business management. In addition to Henricks, the core team includes multiple other dedicated individuals with backgrounds in design, software programming with Amazon Web Services (AWS), program management from a life-cycle perspective, education, and chemistry. These individuals are Aryadeepta Dee and Prakash Maria Lij P. Dee is the high school student who came up with the idea and initiated the MARLEy project. Currently, Dee is deep-diving into research on Unity, in an attempt to understand how it works and how it can be used to turn MARLEy into a reality. Lij P is a coding guru, with extensive experience in AWS environments.

Challenges and Achievements

The team has been facing several challenges. Since the MIT competition, there has been a struggle to hold the team together. MARLEy originated with eight individuals but is now down to just a few team members. Turnover has been high. And the team is finding it difficult to recruit developers who are able and willing to turn MARLEy into a reality. 

Despite their challenges, the team has also had several achievements. By participating in the MIT challenge, they realized that they had an idea that was worth pursuing. And at the Helpful Engineering Hack-a-Thon, MARLEy was named a user choice favorite. This announcement further solidified the team’s resolution to continue to pursue their goals. Helpful Engineering also recently picked up MARLEy as a highlighted project. These achievements have given the team access to prizes that come in the form of much-needed resources. In fact, the team currently has access to $5k in AWS Credits, $1.5k in Business Support Credits, and $500 for development – all of which will help to propel them forward. 

The team has remained hopeful throughout the process and continues to make progress. The remaining four team members are fully-committed to seeing the project through, to wherever it takes them. In addition, Henricks says that talking to Helpful Engineering has helped them to refocus their goals and to begin operating in a more well-defined agile process. In turn, this has allowed them to more clearly identify the bare minimum needed for each phase of the project in order to construct a product that is useful for educators and students alike. As a result, the team feels that they will be able to bring a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to fruition very quickly once they have the right resources. Henricks states, “The sky still seems to be the limit.” 

MARLEy pitch.

How You Can Help

MARLEy’s greatest need right now is volunteers. The team currently lacks key personnel, who are required to bring the product to fruition. They are developing internal capabilities and reaching out to their network to source volunteers. However, the team continues to seek software developers and engineers who can help them define the boundaries of the project. That said, they are also open to volunteers of all backgrounds. In fact, Henricks says, “No idea is too crazy, and all backgrounds are welcome. We just need you to pick up a keyboard and dive into learning something new with us.

Want to volunteer?

Join the MARLEy channel in the Helpful Engineering Slack at Volunteer Page then #project-ar-lab channel.

Want to learn more?

Watch the most recent pitch of MARLEy at https://youtu.be/92YqhZrFFts

The designs in this article are presented As-Is. The goal is to present designs that can foster further discussion and be utilized in countries that permit this product. These are not finalized designs and do not represent certification from any country. You accept responsibility and release Helpful Engineering from liability for the manufacture or use of this product. This design was created in response to the announcement on March 10, 2020, from the HHS.  Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who issued a declaration pursuant to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act

Link to Prep act: https://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/legal/prepact/Pages/default.aspx

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Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads

Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

Plastic waste, omnipresent and seemingly immortal, pervades every corner of our planet. Once celebrated as the marvel of modern innovation, it now stands as a monument to our unchecked consumption. However, the tide is turning. From waste emerges an unexpected solution: using plastic waste in road construction.

The basic premise revolves around using plastic waste as a partial substitute for bitumen in roads. But how is this concept fairing on the ground? Let’s delve into five case studies from around the world:

India

Perhaps one of the earliest adopters of this method, India has paved thousands of kilometers of roads using plastic waste. The southern city of Chennai has been at the forefront. Their approach involves shredding the plastic to a specific size before mixing it with bitumen.

Learnings: The roads demonstrate increased resilience, especially during the monsoons. However, the importance of maintaining a consistent plastic size was a significant lesson, ensuring even distribution and longevity.

The Netherlands

This European nation took a modular approach. They introduced plastic road surfaces as pre-fabricated blocks, making installation and maintenance more manageable.

Learnings: The modular nature allows for quicker repair and replacement. Moreover, these blocks, when worn out, can be recycled, further pushing the sustainability envelope.

South Africa

Here, the approach was more community-centric. By involving local communities in plastic collection, not only were roads built, but jobs were also created.

Learnings: Beyond just infrastructure development, the project showcased how environmental solutions could have socio-economic benefits. The community ownership also ensured consistent plastic waste supply and road maintenance.

Australia

Down under, they embarked on a pilot project in Melbourne by using a mix of recycled plastics equivalent to plastics from over 3 million plastic bags, along with glass and toners from used print cartridges.

Learnings: The diversity in the type of plastics used provided a more comprehensive blueprint for cities worldwide. It emphasized the need for rigorous testing to determine the right mix and highlighted the potential to incorporate other recyclable materials.

United Kingdom

The UK’s approach was heavily research-driven. They launched trials in Cumbria to understand the long-term effects of plastic roads.

Learnings: The UK’s focus on research underscored the importance of longitudinal studies. While immediate benefits are evident, understanding the environmental and structural impact over years or decades is crucial for widespread adoption.

While these successes chart a hopeful course, the journey of integrating plastic waste into roads is not without its challenges:

  • Type of Plastic: Not all plastics are suited for road construction. This necessitates thorough segregation and compatibility checks.
  • Environmental Impact: There’s a risk of microplastics being released into the environment as roads wear down.
  • Health Concerns: Toxic fumes released during the melting process could pose health risks to workers and nearby communities.
  • Durability and Performance: The long-term performance of plastic roads in different conditions remains a topic of study.
  • Recycling Limitations: Some plastics lose their structural integrity after being recycled multiple times, impacting road longevity.
  • End-of-Life Management: The disposal of worn-out plastic roads without causing environmental harm is an unresolved challenge.
  • Economic Viability: Balancing the costs of treating and integrating plastic can be a hurdle.
  • Public Perception and Acceptance: Garnering public support and addressing concerns are essential for this initiative’s success.
  • Regulatory and Standards Development: The absence of standardized guidelines can complicate the construction process.
  • Supply Chain Challenges: Ensuring a consistent supply of suitable plastic waste, especially in less urbanized regions, can be challenging.

These examples, spread across different continents, highlight the adaptability and potential of integrating plastic waste into road construction. But it’s more than just a technical solution; it’s a paradigm shift. The message is clear: what we deem ‘waste’ today could be the ‘resource’ of tomorrow.

Each case study, with its unique approach and lessons, illustrates the significance of context. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but the underlying theme remains consistent — innovation, adaptability, and sustainability are key.

As we reflect on these global efforts, it becomes evident that the journey of plastic waste from being discarded to paving our roads is a testament to human ingenuity and resilience. Through these case studies, we discover myriad ways to reimagine waste, reshape infrastructure, and redefine the future. It’s a potent reminder that innovation emerges from challenges, and with commitment and vision, the path to change is always within reach.


Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

Akon and Andy Rabens Pose For Photos with Entrepreneurs

In the sprawling expanses of Africa, as twilight descends, a new beacon of hope emerges. Not from global energy moguls or international benefactors, but from the pulsating world of music. At the helm? Akon. Once a maestro of chart-topping hits, he’s now orchestrating a different kind of rhythm: a rhythm of transformation.

Much of Africa’s tale has been shadowed by the absence of dependable electricity. Remote hamlets plunged into twilight, their only respite being the toxic fumes of kerosene lamps. But with Senegalese roots grounding him, Akon envisioned a brighter narrative.

Solar Embrace

Treading into the vast potential of the continent, Akon’s endeavor was nothing short of audacious. His ‘Akon Lighting Africa’ initiative, set in motion in 2014, sought to electrify remote corners across 25 nations. Aiming to impact a staggering 600 million lives, it was a symphony of ambition and altruism.

Central to this narrative was the sun. Africa, eternally kissed by sunlight, had its potent energy often overlooked. Akon and his team sought to capture this perennial force. Solar panels, once mere passive structures, were transformed into catalysts for change.

They bypassed the need for expansive infrastructures typically associated with traditional power. By decentralizing energy, Akon’s approach empowered communities at a granular level. Each village, each home, could become a fortress of self-reliance. This isn’t just electrification; it’s emancipation.

Empowering the Grassroots

A critical facet of Akon’s strategy was its deep-rooted commitment to nurturing local talent. This wasn’t a superficial transplantation of Western technology. Instead, a robust drive was undertaken to train local engineers and budding entrepreneurs.

By 2021, a formidable 5,000 individuals had been molded, ensuring that the projects didn’t just illuminate, but also invigorated. A local with the expertise to manage these solar setups ensured continuity. This wasn’t mere infrastructural deployment; it was the birth of an entirely new vocational realm. Here was a circular philosophy at play: knowledge and skills didn’t just arrive; they stayed, grew, and prospered.

A Financial Masterstroke

Financing such an ambitious venture was no small feat. Traditional models, often myopic in their vision, failed to grasp the intricacies of rural African electrification. But Akon and his team sketched a different blueprint.

With a deft mix of public and private alliances, they channeled investments from entities passionate about genuine societal impact. This wasn’t just about monetary gains; it was about dividends in human progress. The strategy cultivated sustainable growth without saddling nations with crushing debt.

In Akon’s journey, we glimpse more than just benevolence. It’s a masterclass in synergy, in uniting profit with purpose, leveraging sustainable avenues, and bestowing power upon local communities. It’s a circular dance of progress where every step forward is a leap for an entire community.

From the rhythm of his melodies, Akon once moved the world. Today, through the hum of countless electrified villages, he’s rewiring the continent’s future. One panel, one village, one heartbeat at a time.

The Lighthouse Effect and Africa’s Renaissance

Akon’s ambitious endeavor to illuminate the heart of Africa wasn’t just a testament to his commitment to his roots, but it became a beacon for many African celebrities and influencers who had made their name on international shores.

His journey began a ripple effect, sparking a reverse brain drain and an emergent African identity that champions global knowledge but with deeply rooted African solutions.

The Reverse Brain Drain

Historically, many of Africa’s best and brightest pursued opportunities abroad due to limited resources and infrastructural challenges at home. This led to a “brain drain,” where talent flocked to Western countries. However, Akon’s investment in Africa’s potential has ignited a trend that defies this narrative.

Returning Talent

Following Akon’s steps, several prominent personalities like Didier Drogba, the famed Ivorian footballer, established charitable foundations. Drogba’s foundation, in particular, has been involved in various health and education initiatives in Côte d’Ivoire. The success stories of these initiatives began attracting Africans abroad to consider returning home, leveraging their global experiences and network to make a difference.

Skills and Expertise

The returnees brought more than just capital. They brought with them skills, experiences, and insights from some of the world’s best institutions and companies. They began setting up enterprises, tech hubs, and initiatives in fields ranging from renewable energy to digital innovation and education.

Collaborative Initiatives

Akon’s venture prompted collaboration. Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, for instance, used her platform to emphasize the importance of education and has actively participated in projects aimed at building schools in rural regions. Her collaboration with other returnees and foreign institutions is a testament to the synergies now taking root in Africa.

Crafting a New African Identity

Akon’s initiative has not only been about electrifying homes but also about reigniting pride in African identity.

Homegrown Solutions

This renewed identity champions the philosophy of “For Africa, By Africa.” Instead of wholly importing foreign solutions, there’s a significant emphasis on tailoring interventions to the unique challenges and strengths of African societies.

Cultural Renaissance

Alongside infrastructural developments, there’s been a palpable rejuvenation of African arts, music, literature, and cinema. Stars like Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are leveraging their global platforms to bring attention back to Africa, advocating for an appreciation of its rich traditions and potential.

Economic Paradigms

Africa is now being seen not just as a beneficiary of aid but as an equal partner in global economic dynamics. Akon’s foray into cryptocurrency with the launch of “Akoin” in Senegal is a prime example. This venture further emphasizes his vision of an economically self-reliant Africa, leveraging modern technological tools.

In essence, Akon’s electrification project has been much more than a philanthropic endeavor. It has lit the way for a generation of African influencers, beckoning them back to their roots, not out of obligation but opportunity.

With every village that lights up, it’s not just the darkness that’s kept at bay but also the shadows of outdated narratives. Akon and his league of influencers are championing a new story for Africa, one that blends its rich legacy with a luminous vision for the future.


Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

In the heart of bustling cities with desert horizons, where skyscrapers cast long shadows and space is a premium, a new silhouette is emerging — vertical farms. These towering havens of greenery promise fresh produce even in the densest urban centers. Yet, with their rise come challenges: space constraints, soaring energy demands, hefty initial investments, and intricate upkeep. However, as innovators are proving, every problem has a solution. Let’s traverse the stacked aisles of urban vertical farming.

Tilling the Concrete Jungle

The dream is seductive: converting urban spaces into productivity hubs, reducing food miles, and offering city dwellers a literal taste of the farm. However, dreams often grapple with reality:

Space Constraints: While vertical farming minimizes horizontal space use, urban centers, especially in desert countries, offer limited space due to high property values.

Energy Appetite: Traditional farming thrives on sunlight. Vertical farms, however, often rely heavily on energy-intensive artificial lighting, especially in regions with prolonged hot and sun-scarce periods.

Capital Challenges: Setting up a vertical farm isn’t cheap. From specialized lighting to hydroponic systems, the initial costs can be daunting.

Maintenance Maze: These farms aren’t just about sowing and reaping; they’re complex systems requiring consistent monitoring and adjustments.

Innovating Upwards: Modular & Energy-Efficient Solutions

What if the challenges of space and energy could be turned into strengths?

Modular Systems: Think of them as Lego blocks for farmers. Customizable, expandable, and versatile, they can be fitted into various urban spaces, from rooftops to balconies to abandoned warehouses.

Tapping Renewable Energy: Solar panels or wind turbines can be integrated to harness natural energy. In sun-rich desert countries, this could counterbalance energy consumption.

Optimized Lighting: Advanced LED lights, tailored to emit specific wavelengths, can promote faster plant growth with less energy.

Smart Systems: Automated sensors and AI-driven analytics can reduce the need for constant human monitoring, optimizing conditions for plant growth while conserving resources.

Case Study: The Oasis Towers of Dubai

Dubai, with its sprawling skyscrapers and desert backdrop, epitomizes space and environmental challenges. Enter the Oasis Towers: a series of vertical farms powered entirely by solar panels, taking modularity to new heights. Designed as self-sufficient units, each module can be tailored to specific crops. The result? A 70% reduction in water usage and a significant drop in energy costs, producing yields comparable to larger traditional farms.

Cost-Effective and User-Friendly: Democratizing Vertical Farming

High-tech farming solutions can seem out of reach for small-scale urban farmers and community gardens. Yet, the future holds promise:

Shared Farming Spaces: Think co-working spaces, but for farmers. Shared facilities can spread out the costs, making the technology accessible to many.

Training and Support: Local governments and NGOs can offer training sessions, ensuring farmers reap the most from these systems.

Local Manufacturing: Producing components locally, especially in warm or desert countries, can reduce costs.

Simplified Systems for Community Gardens: Stripping down advanced systems to their essentials can provide community gardens with affordable vertical farming solutions.

Case Study: Lima’s Urban Green Revolution

Lima, with its warm climate, has seen community gardens sprout throughout the city. Faced with space constraints, locals innovated with cost-effective vertical solutions. Using locally sourced materials, combined with basic hydroponic systems and shared LED setups, yields have flourished. These community-driven initiatives not only feed neighbourhoods but also foster community ties and engagement.

Conclusion

Vertical farming, with its verdant towers and digital dashboards, offers more than just fresh produce; it paints a vision of a sustainable, resilient urban future. Warm and desert countries, often at the frontlines of climate change, stand to gain immensely from this agricultural renaissance.

Yet, the transition demands more than just technology; it requires a blend of innovation, community engagement, and a dash of audacity. As city skylines evolve, integrating green into the gray, vertical farming stands not as a mere trend but as a testament to human ingenuity in the face of challenges. From Lima’s community gardens to Dubai’s Oasis Towers, the future of farming is not just on the horizon, but reaching for the skies.


Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.