“Save The Water Pipes” Wins Excellence Award in IoT China Contest

The “Blue Team”, the team behind the “Save The Water Pipes” project, has returned home to the US after a successful trip to China. The “Save the Water Pipes” project is a freezing water pipe detection and prevention system. It detects when water in a pipe is about to freeze, and drips a faucet to allow water to flow through the pipe until the temperature rises, and then automatically shuts off the faucet. Its purpose is to prevent water damage to homes and buildings in cold areas caused by freezing pipes breaking, while dripping just enough water to prevent the pipes from freezing and prevent water waste.

As mentioned in my previous blog post, my team’s “Save the Water Pipes” project was selected as one of the top 10 US teams to fly to Beijing, China during the week of August 15-19, 2016 and compete in the final hackathon at the China-US Young Maker Competition, sponsored by Intel, and in collaboration with the Chinese government. Intel paid for the travel expenses of all the US teams. Thanks, Intel!!!

The “Blue Team” consists of myself, Vui Nguyen, as software engineer and team captain; Crystal Gannon, software engineer; and Eric Richardson, hardware engineer.

Along with the 9 other US teams, we also competed against 54 Chinese teams. The “Blue Team” ended up winning the “Excellence” award and placed 11th out of 64 teams total. This is my report on our adventures that week.

On the first full day of our trip, August 15th, Intel took all 10 US teams to visit the Great Wall of China. We took an aerial tram to get to the top of one section, which was fun. Besides the Great Wall itself, the lush scenery surrounding the Wall was also amazing. No one ever talks about how green it is around the Great Wall! At least, this section of the Wall looked like it was straight out of a Kung Fu movie.

While at the Great Wall, one of our team members, Crystal Gannon, was asked to be in a couple of “white person” selfies. This is when a native Chinese tourist, who has maybe never seen a Caucasian in the flesh, asks a white American to be in their selfie, so they can show their friends back home. Being Asian myself, I probably didn’t look exotic enough for anyone to ask for my picture. Our other team member, Eric Richardson, was disappointed that no one asked him for a “white person” selfie. But fear not, my friends, his opportunity will come soon.

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We also learned early on to buy lots of water from the local 7-Eleven because our hotel had “non-potable” water. Did you know that 7-Elevens in Beijing are awesome? I had no idea. The variety of snacks and freshness of ready-made entrees there rivals any 7-Eleven that I’ve been to in the US, though the Slurpee machine was, sadly, missing. But I digress.

 

 

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The evening of August 15th was the kickoff ceremony and the start of the 24-hour hackathon. Boy, Intel China and the Chinese government sure know how to kick off a hackathon. Here’s a decent picture of the “Tron” dance performed at the kickoff ceremony.

We saw pictures of our team, and names of individual team members in the hallways of the Millennium Center, the building where our week’s activities would take place. It was exciting to see that we were a part of something so awesome.

After the kickoff ceremony, the 24-hour hackathon started. It would go from 8 pm that night to 8pm the following night.

We began the hackathon that evening by gluing pieces of our system together. In order to bring our project over to Beijing, the “Blue Team” had to bring it over in pieces and assemble it all together there. We also had some last-minute programming, integration, and testing to do as well. We ended up getting everything working, while working down to the last minute. And here’s why…

We made our system bigger and better from last time. The project that we submitted online at hackster.io was designed to simulate monitoring the pipe system for one home or unit. Since the rules stated that we needed to “show improvement” for the final competition in China, we modified our system to simulate monitoring three units, like 3 apartment units in a building, for example.

So, that meant a lot more coolers, pipes, sensors, everything! It was a challenge getting everything through airport security, let me tell you. On the software side, this also required me to refactor the back end code, as there were now three of every variable to keep track of. As the system was written in JavaScript, Express, and Node, my solution was JavaScript objects to the rescue! We also now had two pages on our website to control the system instead of one. The first page would show the faucet status of all 3 units in real time (dripping or not dripping). You would click on a unit on the first page to get to the second page, which shows the temperature of the water in the pipe in real time, and also allows access to the “manual override” feature (explained 2 paragraphs from here.) Many thanks to Crystal for building our web interface.

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1st webpage

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2nd webpage after selecting “unit C” on the 1st webpage

Another improvement was the use of solenoids to power the opening/closing of valves to simulate dripping of the faucets. We had previously used stepper motors to do the job, but they were slow and the valves would continue to drip, ever so slightly, even after they were supposed to be “closed”. The solenoid motors were fast, in opening and closing the valves, and did not drip. We also added a Grove Relay Shield to handle the multiple solenoids, as we needed to control multiple valves now. Many thanks to Eric for designing this new and improved hardware feature.

The final major improvement made was with the “manual override” feature. The “manual override” feature was in beta mode when we submitted our project online. The system, when operating correctly, is typically in “auto mode”, meaning that the valves will open / close based on the temperature of the water in the pipe for that unit. “Manual override” allows you to open a valve and keep it open, or close a valve and keep it closed, regardless of the temperature reading in the pipe. You can also go back to “auto mode” at anytime. This feature allows the user to have greater control of the system. We got the “manual override” working seamlessly with the “auto mode,” and we were able to toggle back and forth between the two. See code for both the old and the new system on my Github!

In addition to completing work on the system within the time constraints, there were other challenges. Google is banned in China, for example, so it was hard looking up information. Are you old enough to remember doing technical workΒ  without Google? It was no fun. Twitter and Facebook are also banned, meaning I had to wait until I returned home before I could tweet any information about what was going on!

But guess what? We got it all done, working down to the last minute, by 8 pm on August 16th.

The next day, August 17, was demo and competition day. There would be two rounds of competition. In the first round, all the teams would compete. The 64 teams were divided into 3 groups. Every team had their own table. So, three groups of judges made the rounds that morning, stopping by each team’s table to watch their demo.

We had five minutes to give our system demo, plus two minutes for Q&A. Our demo was the “Save The Water Pipes” system running in the background on “auto mode,” while we explained our system to the judges. The breakdown of our demo was this:

Vui – team and project intro

Eric – system overview

Crystal – market viability and business prospects

Vui – show website and explain project improvements

And how did it go, you ask? Fantastic! It was probably the best demo of our system we had ever done, I couldn’t imagine it going any better.

We didn’t get a chance to record the actual demo that we gave, but here is a video of our system that we recorded later that day:

By 1 pm, they announced the list of teams going into the second, or final round of the competition, which they had narrowed down to 24 teams. The “Blue Team” was one of them!

The team captains drew numbers to determine the order of the demos that afternoon. I drew number 23 for the “Blue Team”. We were number 23 out of 24. 😯

It was a long afternoon, all that waiting. Also, there was a “twist” to the second round. In the first round, we were allowed to demo at our team table, where everything was already set up and working; for the second round we had to move upstairs.

But wait, there’s more! If we wanted to demo our actual system, we had to move the entire setup upstairs to a staging area, and then move the whole thing again to the actual stage in front of the judges. All that moving of hardware was extremely risky – there was no time for proper setup and testing of everything before performing the demo in front of the judges. Anything could go wrong: a piece of hardware could come loose, we could lose connection to the wifi , or …

But the alternative was to show a PowerPoint presentation, or our previous video that we submitted online for the contest. Neither option could really demonstrate how far we’ve come with our system and if we could pull off our amazing demo a second time, well, the payoff would have been huge.

So, how did we do in round two? Well, not as well as round one. We forgot one little detail in setting up our system for the stage before the judges: making sure the “power” button on the power strip was turned on so that the solenoid motors could open and close the valves. Did the judges notice that the valves for the faucets were not opening and closing? Honestly, we’re not sure if it even mattered. Being the second to last team to present after a long day of demos meant that half of the judges were so bored, that they were playing with their smart phones or sleeping by the time we presented. Also, we presented in English while some of the judges only spoke Mandarin, which was another disadvantage for us. (Sadly, my poor Vietnamese speaking skills couldn’t help us in Beijing). I was devastated. 😦

The next day, August 18, was awards ceremony day. I feared the worst. But the “Blue Team” ended up winning the “Excellence” award and placed 11th overall out of 64 teams. The only US team to crack the top 10 was “Grindbit,” a system to track teeth grinding at night, which placed 4th, winning one of the three “2nd place” prizes. It probably didn’t hurt that “Grindbit” had some Chinese-American members and presented their demo in Mandarin.

Check out the video of the “Grindbit” team receiving their award. I love the game show feel of the whole thing – from the models presenting the awards to the music:

So, was the competition rigged against the US teams? Maybe, I don’t know, but it didn’t matter. Although the round two demo was a little rough for us, I had a blast during the hackathon and the entire competition. More importantly, my team and I had accomplished everything we set out to do, technically, for our project. I enjoyed meeting my fellow competitors from the US teams, and the Chinese teams as well. The Chinese teams were really just a bunch of high school and college age kids, and many of them were happy to talk with us (some spoke very good English, putting our Mandarin to shame πŸ˜‰ ), and take pictures with us. Eric even got to star in a few “white person” selfies with some of them. Eric made a friend in John, from one of the Chinese teams, although I don’t think that was his real name. John loved America, and he loved the show “Friends”, and he helped our team move our system around for the round 2 demo. John’s team also placed in the top 10, and their project was a vertical plant gardening system (literally, growing plants up the side of a building – imagine seeing that on a Beijing highrise!). I also got to know Peter Ma, the team captain of “Grindbit”, and a fellow Intel Software Innovator. (I just recently became an Intel Software Innovator myself πŸ™‚ ). So, seeing my friends from two teams, “Grindbit” and John’s team, place in the top 10 – how can I be mad about that? And there were so many amazing projects! Plus, the networking opportunities and exposure, and the chance to go on an all-expense paid trip to China, added up to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. πŸ˜€ (Besides the many Chinese media outlets that were there, the VP of Intel and the American ambassador to China were among the visitors to see a demo of our project!)

August 18th concluded the final day of the competition. The next day, August 19th, was the Maker Faire in Beijing. With the competition behind us, the “Blue Team” got to finally relax and enjoy the festivities of the Maker Faire. Among the sights we caught was a robotic dragon, because, why not? Finally, to end the trip, Intel took the US teams to see the “Temple of Heaven”.Β  That about wraps up my trip to China to compete in the final competition of the China-US Young Maker contest. Enjoy the video from the Maker Fair, and thanks for reading about the adventures of the “Blue Team” in Beijing!

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US Teams with Intel China at Temple of Heaven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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