What began as a marketing campaign for an automobile company has turned into a passion project for Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute staff members, who are creating a solar-powered ventilation system to clear unhealthy cooking smoke from single-room homes.
Joshua Schapiro and Mike Taylor, research associates in the CREATE Lab, have designed a ventilation system they plan to build and install in homes in a village four hours outside of Kampala, Uganda.
Each system could fit in a shoebox that includes a solar cell the size of a small tablet computer, a battery/remote control package and a combined electric pump and LED lamp that fits in the palm of a hand, along with some flexible plastic tubing.
"It's modest," Schapiro said. "But even a little airflow can make a big difference for people who burn wood to cook meals indoors."
The original idea came from Tim Witmer, a contestant in Toyota's Ideas for Good campaign. Launched in 2010 and guided by Pittsburgh's Deeplocal marketing agency, Ideas for Good highlighted innovative technology in the company's Prius hybrid vehicle. It culminated with a contest in which people suggested how several of those technologies could be repurposed.
Smoke-based illnesses are a major problem in developing nations because biomass frequently must be used for cooking indoors on primitive stoves, and Witmer suggested the Prius' solar-powered ventilation system might be a solution. Out of the more than 4,000 entries, Toyota chose his as one of five winners and invited all five to the CMU campus in May 2011 to put together prototypes of their ideas.
Once the campaign ended, Toyota provided funding to the university to continue development of the ideas. The CREATE Lab, which facilitated the build weekend for the finalists, adopted the ventilation project. Illah Nourbakhsh, robotics professor and director of the lab, joined Taylor on a visit to Uganda in 2012 to better understanding the need and the culture.
In the Makukuulu parish, they found home ventilation was very poor. Because a few bricks always seemed to be missing near the ceiling, they thought forced airflow could be an option.
"We didn't realize until we were standing in the kitchens how dark they were," Taylor said, prompting them to add LED lighting to the ventilation system plans.
"The people of Makukuulu took us into their homes and made us part of their families. I would like to do this for my family." Joshua Schapiro
In June 2013, Taylor and Schapiro returned to Makukuulu to install six systems.
"The smoke was so thick in there that you couldn't even breathe," Schapiro said of one of the homes. Within a few minutes of switching the ventilation on, "the group was hanging out and talking.
"It worked well. They loved it," Schapiro said.
The systems were crude, designed to prove the principle but not built to last. Schapiro and Taylor figured they would be back in short order with more and improved versions. But, funding ran out for the project, and years of effort failed to identify a new sponsor.
"We created a presentation showing how a small amount of funding could transform air quality for an entire Ugandan village, and how the techniques we would develop could scale with local, African business leadership to cover entire countries," Nourbakhsh said. "Yet, foundations and corporations consistently turned down our request for underwriting."
A year ago, Schapiro and Taylor revived the project. Working out of Schapiro's garage, they designed a system that is smaller and easier to build, clean and maintain.
Their goal is to build, ship and install systems in 25 homes later this year, and ultimately install 100, enough for the whole village. Schapiro and Taylor plan to train and compensate members of the local village community so the ventilation systems can be maintained after they are gone.
They hope to raise $10,000 through generosity.com, a fundraising platform geared to charitable causes, to start the process.
"The people of Makukuulu took us into their homes and made us part of their families," Schapiro said. "I would like to do this for my family."