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How A Lego Robotics Competition Produced A New Tornado Warning App

I count myself lucky that I don't live in Tornado Alley (or any other disaster zone, for that matter). Even earlier this year, when my city was hit by the most devastating flood it's ever experienced, I was high and dry; I live in an area of town that's basically at the top of one big hill. Flooding's not really a concern.

Ah, but I'm getting off track.

Currently, one of the biggest problems with natural disasters is that the warning systems we've got in place more often than not tend to be both slow and archaic, using delivery systems that more and more people aren't necessarily going to have access to. I myself rarely listen to the radio, and I've not had a cable subscription in years - in the event that there actually is some disaster in my area, how will I know about it? 

A group of students attending the FIRST (Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego Robotics Competition asked exactly that question. Each year, the competition uses Lego coupled with a real-world challenge, directing students to construct a Lego community and use Lego robots to complete a number of different tasks in that community. 

The theme this year was Nature's Fury. 

The team, a group of students ranging from 8 to 13 assembled by VerifastBots, chose Essex County and a Tornado as their project, and immediately set to work designing an early warning system which would make use of mobile devices. The system envisioned by this group of students uses a dual polarization radar to track the debris field and path of a tornado, then uses GPS to determine what route you should take to the nearest tornado shelter. 

"We came along with it by learning that the warning systems the way they are very, very bad," explained 11-year-old Mackenzie Parks. "We actually do think it will be used in real life...this app could save lives." 

According to Parks, it's not just about tornados, either. Other disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, could be made considerably less deadly through the use of the application, which could help direct people away from hot-zones and co-ordinate escape and rescue efforts. The most challenging aspect of this project, Parks continued, was programming their robot. 

Now, granted, this isn't an entirely original idea - this wouldn't be the first tornado warning app ever made, after all. The student's idea is unique, however, in that it tries to pinpoint the location of the tornado on the map and direct people out of its path. In the future, the students would like to see their concept developed into a free mobile app.