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A University of Hawaiʻi student-led team won a competition designed to foster innovation while helping a local company serving thousands of residents. Hosted by the UH Office of Innovation and Commercialization (OIC), the spring 2021 Innovation Impact Challenge (IIC) partnered with Hawaiian Telcom.

Two UH teams presented their solutions to develop a hands-free underground communications utility locator, and one came out on top and received $15,000 in funding from Hawaiian Telcom and OIC.

“The IIC is founded on collaboration,” said Sandra Fujiyama, UH innovation and business development officer. “Our office worked with industry partner, Hawaiian Telcom, to identify local challenges, including challenges to disrupt existing industries, and then engaged our talented pool of UH researchers and students to develop innovative solutions to those challenges.”

Competition challenge

Identifying underground communications facilities requires a worker to open a utility box and connect a clamp (the transmitter) to the wires. The worker then traces those wires using a locator, which gets its information from a high frequency signal generated by the transmitter. The same technology has been used for the past 40 years.

Hawaiian Telcom challenged teams to eliminate the clamp, discover the ability to differentiate a TV cable from a telephone cable and geocode results. Hawaiian Telcom also issued bonus points if the innovations were able to identify the quantity of each type of cable underground.

Winning team and runner up

Pulse Utility, led by Craig Opie, a UH Mānoa information and computer sciences undergraduate student, won the competition and will now work to commercialize its ideas. Hawaiʻi Innovation Lab (HIL), led by Arif Rahman, a UH Mānoa electrical engineering postdoctoral fellow, came in as the runner up. Hawaiian Telcom was impressed by both teams with their technical expertise and business presentations.

Hawaiʻi and especially the UH System has the talent to solve real-world problems across a variety of industries,” said Jason Thune, Hawaiian Telcom director of strategy and innovation. “The solutions presented are not only technically viable, but also marketable in a way to showcase our community as a technology innovator. We are humbled to foster global-level solutions right here in our backyard.”

Along with Opie on Pulse Utility are Anthony Lopez, a UH Mānoa electrical engineering undergraduate student; Yosef Ben Gershom, a Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory mechanical engineer and UH Mānoa executive MBA student; Josh O’Neill, a Honolulu Community College computing, security, and networking technology student; and Mevan Ranasinghe, a Honolulu CC natural sciences lecturer and faculty mentor. The team’s project uses ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipped with GPS to detect normally undetectable subsurface features, provides reliable depth estimates, allows for data visualization and finds all buried infrastructure.

“Over the next month, our team will begin training on our GPR device and perform demos for Hawaiian Telcom. Subsequently, we will acquire a workforce to service the utility finding needs of local businesses and look to scale our services to a global market. Pulse Utility will also be collecting the real world data required for developing an adaptive AI for GPR devices,” Opie said.

Joining Rahman on HIL are Kareem Elassy, UH Mānoa electrical engineering PhD graduate; with support from Aaron Ohta and Wayne Shiroma, UH Mānoa electrical engineering professors and co-advisors. The team’s proposal involved a dual band ground penetrating radar with artificial intelligence image processing to detect and classify underground cables. Although the team did not win the competition, it continues to pursue commercialization of its other technologies, including its low-cost liquid metal coating for concentrated solar power polymeric mirrors in the American-Made Solar Prize competition.

Innovation leader

UH is leading the effort to support new innovations and startup businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The IIC is just one of the programs offered by OIC to provide innovation and entrepreneurial support to the UH community.

“In the pursuit of driving local and global societal and economic impact and building a more sustainable and resilient economy for Hawaiʻi, OIC has reimagined the framework of its innovation and commercialization pathway to incorporate early stage deep tech and high growth ideation,” OIC Interim Director Steve Auerbach said. “These innovation impact challenges are focused squarely on solving problem sets and developing solutions for private industry, federal, state and Department of Defense partners.”

Auerbach added, “Once again, Hawaiian Telcom is leaning in and supporting the innovation and entrepreneurship community by offering up problem sets that provide applied research opportunities for UH researchers to commercialize their work.”

For more information, visit OIC’s website.

This program is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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