Industry collaboration between the ASU Luminosity Lab and Axon leads to innovative Guardian Balloon system for campus and football game safety
November 15, 2022
When you're headed to a football game, you’re usually looking forward to the action on the field or enjoying time with your friends. But if you're going to Arizona State University's Homecoming game on Saturday, Nov. 19, take a minute to look up on your way there. You may notice a set of large balloons equipped with innovative technology created by a team of top ASU students.
These balloons, known as Guardian Balloons, are the result of a collaboration between Scottsdale-based safety technology company Axon and ASU students from the Luminosity Lab, a student-led research and development lab based in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The students worked with Axon professionals to come up with new ways to help secure large college campuses like ASU and university events such as football games. Arizona State University Luminosity Lab Director Tyler Smith (left), aerospace and mechanical engineering senior Hatvi Thakkar (right) and Axon Senior Program Manager Jake McElroy (back) test the camera payload of a Guardian Balloon, a new security tool developed by Luminosity Lab students in collaboration with safety company Axon. ASU football game attendees may notice these balloons as the team tests them for use in situational awareness applications. Photo by Alexander Chapin/ASUDownload Full Image
This effort is part of a larger experiment to create comprehensive security for the 21st century, says Karl Schultz, vice president and head of Taser robotics at Axon. ASU students' contributions are an integral part of the development process.
“Luminosity’s strengths are being able to take those large, real-world problems, break them down and develop solutions that cross different discipline boundaries and barriers,” says Tyler Smith, director of Luminosity Lab. “And by doing that, they are able to come up with one of the best possible solutions for the problem.”
Large, open environments like ASU's Tempe campus pose big security challenges, which the Axon and Luminosity Lab team have been learning about from Dave Ellis, founder of GEMSEC Consulting.
Security teams must find a balance between public access and mitigating potential threats in these spaces. Ellis says solutions that enhance situational awareness over wide areas are one way to increase security without hindering people’s experiences.
“Having situational awareness and tools like the balloons that will allow you to be more efficient in monitoring your environment are really beneficial for not only stopping things before they happen, but should something happen, it gives those decision-makers more tools in their toolbox,” Ellis says.
The Luminosity Lab and Axon team is developing a flexible situational awareness tool that rises to meet security challenges.
The Guardian Balloons are helium-filled, tethered balloons equipped with cameras that capture 4K, high-resolution video. Multiple balloons launched to heights of around 60 to 100 feet can work together as one system to get a full view of an area like Sun Devil Stadium and the surrounding areas. Security teams can pan, tilt and zoom in on the video feed to watch for potentially dangerous situations that need attention.
The students have been working with the ASU Police Department to get feedback about the concept and capabilities safety agencies are interested in, Smith says. The department's support in combination with Axon’s expertise has helped the team operationalize the Guardian Balloon technology for use in real-world settings like Sun Devil Stadium.
“The biggest challenge was the stability of the balloons to give a proper video feed that is useful for police officers,” says Jake McElroy, a senior program manager at Axon who has been working with the Luminosity Lab students during the project's development. “The ASU team has done a fantastic job in countering these challenges using video stabilization, balloon redesign and alternative methods such as a hard mount.”
The Guardian Balloons are helium-filled balloons that can be set up around an event. They can provide security teams a bird’s-eye view of a wide area to watch for potentially dangerous situations and quickly send help. Photo by Alexander Chapin/ASU
While balloons seem low-tech, they have advantages over helicopters and drones, which are typically used to get a bird's-eye view of events. Comparatively, the balloons are quieter and cheaper, have fewer restrictions and are easier to use.
They’re also very scalable — additional balloons can be launched and integrated into the system from almost anywhere in as little as 20 minutes — which makes them better suited for scenarios in which hard-mounted cameras and the infrastructure they require are not optimal. Guardian Balloons can be powered by wired electrical and internet connections, or a battery and wireless connection to further increase the flexibility of the design.
“The ease of deployment and flexibility of location that comes with this (solution) pushes us to explore balloons as a new avenue for safety and event security,” says Ananay Arora, a computer science graduate student in the Fulton Schools who has been leading the Guardian Balloons’ software development. “The low cost while delivering much higher-quality video also makes it a big win.”
Interdisciplinary industry collaboration
Developing a situational awareness system for a complex security landscape requires a wide range of skills and expertise. The eight Luminosity Lab students who have worked on the project so far are undergraduate and graduate students in a variety of degree programs, including computer science, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, business and industrial design.
Jacob Mansur, a junior in the industrial design program at The Design School at ASU, says he has used all of the fundamental skills he learned from his coursework and even picked up new skills through his work on the project.
“With Luminosity, I’ve been given more mentorship than I’d typically have in a class, and it has really helped me with understanding what is expected once I graduate with my bachelor’s degree,” Mansur says.
“We work with all industries and all capabilities,” says Jon Relvas, business development director of Corporate Engagement and Strategic Partnerships.
ASU Luminosity Lab Director Tyler Smith (front), Axon Senior Program Manager Jake McElroy (back left), Axon Vice President Karl Schultz (back center) and ASU undergraduate student Hatvi Thakkar conduct a test of the Guardian Balloons from the top of the Memorial Union building on ASU's Tempe campus in early October. Photo by Alexander Chapin/ASU
Through Corporate Innovation Labs, Relvas says that “companies see the hands-on work that these brilliant students can do and develop, and exposes the corporations to a win-win situation: The students get experience, and at the same time, the companies may create new solutions and IP (intellectual property), something that can go to the commercial market and gets applied to real-world challenges.”
Schultz, who was a professor of practice in the Fulton Schools before joining Axon, has been impressed by the diversity of perspectives and skills the students have brought to the project and what they’ve achieved in a short amount of time.
“ASU students and the Luminosity Lab are very experienced at rapid prototyping, at practical engineering and manufacturing, not just writing a bunch of equations and saying we solved the problem,” Schultz says. “ASU really emphasizes that throughout the curriculum, and it shows in the quality of work we get from these programs.”
In addition to getting cost-effective, innovative solutions and leveraging the creativity and passion of the students, collaborations such as the Guardian Balloons project are effective workforce development activities.
“Through this project, I was able to design models based on industry standards,” says Hatvi Thakkar, an aerospace and mechanical engineering senior who designed simulation models to test the balloon’s performance in various environmental conditions. “I also learned a lot about various manufacturing techniques for the components used in the assembly of the balloon.”
Success with more to come
McElroy has been impressed by the team’s ability to overcome challenges and improve the Guardian Balloons’ performance.
“When given operational feedback, the team can create a product within days to weeks that mirrors the requirements from Axon,” McElroy says. “This type of turnaround has allowed the team to stay on track to success.”
Their solution is nearing new heights in the development of a non-intrusive and effective way for security teams to quickly notice threats, analyze the situation and respond.
“I think the students came up with a great system that is effective, efficient, scalable, affordable and easily deployable,” Ellis says. “Oftentimes you don’t get all of that in a solution. And it solves not only the challenge of creating great situational awareness, but it has other applications.”
The students are also planning ways to make the balloons a fun presence at ASU events, from using LED lights that can add to the spectacle to other helpful capabilities such as wayfinding features.
For now, it's a rewarding experience for the Luminosity Lab students to see their solution in action at an ASU football game and to know there are bigger possibilities on the horizon.
“My team and I feel incredibly positive about what we’re doing,” Arora says, “which is using our engineering skills to build something that keeps the ASU community safe.”
Video by Alexander Chapin and Jerrell Ayran
Sandra Keaton Leander, assistant director of media relations at ASU Knowledge Enterprise, contributed to this story.
Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series examining water in the Southwest in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact. Read the first installment on the history of the Colorado Water Compact and the second installment on what it means for cities, agriculture and the individual.The landscape at Lake Mead in Arizona looks apocalyptic. Drastically lowere...
ASU experts predict how water consumption might look in our state, based on the science of today
Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series examining water in the Southwest in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact. Read the first installment on the history of the Colorado Water Compact and the second installment on what it means for cities, agriculture and the individual.
The landscape at Lake Mead in Arizona looks apocalyptic. Drastically lowered water levels that have left a “bathtub ring” around the perimeter and uncovered junk that was thrown into the reservoir decades ago have changed the ecosystem and impacted the tourism industry.
Will the Valley of the Sun face the same fate?
Climate change has produced a megadrought that has reduced water in the Colorado River, which was already overallocated to the seven states in its basin. Cuts in the water allotments were imposed in 2022, and this summer, the federal government increased those cuts. Arizona will lose about one-fifth of its share.
The Colorado River supplies about 36% of Arizona’s water. Other water sources come from: groundwater, 41%; in-state rivers, 18%, and reclaimed water, 5%, according to the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.
ASU’s experts on water don’t have a crystal ball, but their deep expertise leads them to predict definite changes to our environment and lifestyle. The amount of change depends on Arizonans’ willingness to make hard choices.
Video by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University
Here are some of our experts’ opinions on what we might see in the future, based on the science of today.
Arizona’s 'Five Cs’ are climate, copper, citrus, cattle and cotton; with water restrictions, will we still grow cotton?
Agriculture is the biggest user of water in Arizona and will likely be the biggest source of cuts.
“In the whole Colorado basin, agriculture uses 75% to 80% of the water,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy, which is part of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU.
The rest is consumed almost entirely by cities, which cannot reduce their use enough to compensate for the upcoming cuts.
“So it will fall to agriculture just as a numbers issue,” she said.
But what that will look like is uncertain. The biggest crops in Arizona, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are alfalfa, at about 305,000 acres; cotton, 130,000 acres; corn, 95,000 acres; lettuce, 64,000 acres, and wheat, 53,000.
Agriculture is a $23 billion industry in Arizona and dates back hundreds of years. The Akimel O’odham people grew cotton a thousand years ago, and nearly 60% of Arizona’s farmers today are Native American.
A cotton field in southern Arizona. Photo courtesy of iStock
Change is already happening. A recent survey about the drought by the American Farm Bureau Federation of more than 650 farmers in 15 Western states found that 74% saw a reduction in harvests and 42% switched crops. Among Arizona respondents, 40% removed orchard trees or other multi-year crops because of water restrictions.
Dave White, a sustainability scientist at ASU, expects a combination of changes in agriculture, including shrinking farmland.
“We are seeing some transitions, for example, in central Arizona, particularly in Pinal County, away from some areas of irrigated agriculture, where the water supply and water rights are not as available as they have been in the past.
“So we are very likely going to see a decline in the total acreage of agriculture in Pinal County,” White said.
One example of this transition is a pilot program launched by Bridgestone Americas, the tire manufacturer, which has paid a farmer in Pinal County to switch from alfalfa to growing guayule, a shrub used to produce rubber that is estimated to use 15% less water. Bridgestone, which has a research center in Mesa, won a federal grant to explore the growing of guayule as a more sustainable form of natural rubber.
“In terms of the large-scale vegetable production that goes on in parts of our state, alfalfa production, which is a very, very thirsty crop, and cotton, also thirsty — these operations are at risk,” she said.
Merrigan said that in 2012, when she was with the USDA, the agency changed its crop hardiness zone maps, which advise growers.
“We know that with climate change, things are accelerating,” she said.
“So maybe down the road, Arizona will be growing different things than we are now. And they'll be growing different things in North Dakota than they are now. Maybe everything shifts.”
Will our diet change?
Merrigan said that the water cutbacks could eventually affect what’s on our plates.
“Our government-issued dietary guidelines for Americans say that we should all be eating half a plate of fruits and vegetables,” she said.
In reality, few of us do that. But what if we do?
“Where in the world are those fruits and vegetables going to come from? They're going to be imported. They may not be produced as safely. They may be produced using pesticides that we don't allow here in the United States for toxicology reasons.”
Long term, researchers are working on whether we can eat some crops that haven’t traditionally been consumed, Merrigan said.
“Maybe we’ll have chefs that are going to figure out all kinds of additional delicious dishes that we're going to want to eat from that.”
Will we still have pools and lawns?
Probably, but maybe not in every yard. White sees more community pools and communal green spaces as a way to reduce water demand.
“No one individual decision can move the needle on our significant water challenges in the state, but the collection of many individual decisions can help to reduce overall water demand,” he said.
About 93% of the water that is flushed or goes down the drain is reused, so there’s pressure to reduce water use outdoors, Porter said.
“In fact, I've been doing research on how much water grass uses. I now look at a lawn as a body of water,” she said, noting that lawns and pools use similar amounts of water, especially in the summer.
Porter is particularly sad to see lawn irrigation that runs into the street.
“This water has gone through a treatment process, so a huge waste of energy and chemical inputs has occurred,” she said.
Some cities are nudging their residents to change their yards. This summer, the Clark County Commission passed an ordinance limiting residential pool sizes in the Las Vegas area to 600 square feet or less. The city of Scottsdale recently approved several incentives for its residents, increasing grass removal rebates up to $5,000 per property and increasing the rebate for in-ground pool or spa removal to $400 plus $1 per square foot of water surface area.
Experts predict there may be fewer residential pools in Arizona in the future. Photo courtesy of iStock
I have a yard with flood irrigation. Will that go away?
“You can feel OK about your flood irrigation,” Porter said. “It's a completely different system, and it has nothing to do with the Colorado River.”
Currently in the Valley, about 22,000 Salt River Project customers have flood irrigation in their yards. A federal study found that the watershed used by SRP, though smaller than the Colorado River Basin, is much more resilient.
Over the past several decades the number of households with grass yards in Phoenix has declined from about 70%–90% in the 1980s to about 15% now, according to the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.
“Over time there will be changes in land use, and it’s already happening that there's less water going to flood irrigation. And then that water will be available for other kinds of uses within the SRP project lands,” Porter said.
How about golf courses?
Taylor Weiss sees the phasing out of golf courses as good for the environment all around.
“Their very role is to spend an inordinate amount of natural resources to create a perfect plain artificial surface out of living plant material,” said Weiss, an assistant professor in the environmental and resource management program at ASU and a researcher in the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation.
Plus, irrigating golf courses creates nutrient runoff into the desert.
“You’re trying to maintain a healthy green grass that absolutely 100% cannot be sustained” — a problem that also applies to non-native palm trees, he said.
Porter thinks that golf courses have to be considered in the entire context of water choices.
“Many golf courses attract tourism and are a way to import money to the community, which could be a good use of water,” she said.
“I think we will probably see some golf courses retire over time, but if we took all the golf courses and replaced them, what would we replace them with? We would probably still want some of the open-space benefit that they give us, and open space requires water. So, it's not simple.”
Golf courses attract tourism to Arizona but also bring environmental concerns. Photo courtesy of iStock
What about car washing?
Porter doesn’t think car washing will go away if people do it at commercial car washes, which capture the dirty water for reuse.
“Washing your car in your driveway or your yard is a bigger waste,” she said.
Will we be drinking treated wastewater?
Porter thinks that could happen in the next 10 years.
“I would say in terms of innovation, it's this thinking about using the same drop of water over and over again,” she said.
Cities are already treating their effluent.
“The city of Scottsdale treats their effluent to a very high standard, and they actually lightly desalinate it so that it can be delivered to golf courses, which are a big feature of the tourism economy for Scottsdale,” she said.
“And we’re seeing interest in direct potable reuse, where the water is sent to the wastewater treatment plant, treated to some high effluent standard, and then it's sent to a drinking water treatment plant, where it's treated to drinking water standards and delivered.”
Will we have desalination plants in the Valley?
Arizonans could potentially be drinking desalinated water — although it won’t be cheap, White said.
“Desalination is an energy-intensive, infrastructure-intensive and water-expensive solution,” he said.
“So it is an important part of the long-term portfolio of solutions, not something that's going to address the most immediate one-, three- or five-year challenges.”
Arizona and Mexico have been talking for years about building a desalination plant in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, Porter said. The plan is for Arizona to build and operate the plant and in exchange take some of Mexico’s share of Colorado River water.
That project, which is at least 20 years away, is estimated to cost $5 billion and produce water at about $2,000 per acre-footA volume of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot. — 10 times more than the water that is delivered via the Central Arizona Project.
Desalinating ocean water also produces tons of salt, which has to be disposed of carefully so it doesn’t damage the environment.
A slightly more likely scenario is building a plant in the West Valley that would desalinate brackish groundwater, which is close to the surface. This would also produce a lot of salt — and a lot of legal challenges — but the resulting water is estimated to cost $600 to $1,200 per acre-foot.
Arizona already has a de-salting plant. The Yuma De-Salting Plant was built in 1992 to treat agricultural runoff. It operated at one-third capacity for one year and then shut down because it was too expensive. As a test, it was restarted for about a year in 2010, treating more than 9 billion gallons of water. The plant could be reactivated, with resulting water poured into the Colorado River, but it would also produce salt.
Is less water going to mean more money out of my pocket?
Probably. The decrease in water allotments will create a cascading effect.
Experts say that water bills could increase, especially in Pinal County, and property taxes in some subdivisions could rise.
The drastic depletion of the Lake Mead and Lake Powell threaten the hydroelectricity produced at Glen Canyon Dam.
Less water can mean fewer crops, which can lead to higher food costs and less profit for farmers.
Plus, farmers in Arizona and California’s Imperial Valley want to be compensated for reducing the amount of water that they collect, Porter said. That can lead to a complicated formula. The farmers in Yuma are asking for $1,500 per acre-foot of water lost, while the ones in California want $2,300 per acre-foot.
“So all told, if we're talking about a multi-year program, we're talking about billions and billions of dollars. And I haven't heard of any plan for where that money would come from,” Porter said.
Other effects are more indirect, such as increased labor or facility costs for municipalities because of poorer water quality.
Water in the canals have seen an increase in types of algae that are sticky or fibrous, clogging water plant filters, Weiss said.
“At the most extreme, six times a day, teams of four to six men are taking apart equipment that was never designed to be taken apart and put back together every day to ensure that the water can keep flowing,” he said.
“That’s not a routine issue you thought about 40 years ago while the infrastructure was put in.
“The utility passes those costs onto their users and realize their user is being told that they're getting less water and paying more for it. So the utilities are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place in this.”
Innovation costs money, which the water providers are loath to spend and then pass on to taxpayers and ratepayers, Weiss said.
“They are always trying to find ways to minimize, minimize, minimize costs. But how do you minimize costs? Sometimes it's by putting the costs off until later. And that'll come due at some point.”
What else could go wrong?
Less water could affect air quality. As water cuts require less crops, land that once grew food will lie fallow, creating dust.
“Valley fever is a fungal spore that's found in desert soils and, in particular, in fallow fields. As there are more and more fields becoming fallow, the potential for this fungal spore to enter the air is increasing,” Weiss said.
Inhaling the spores can lead to lung infection in some people and serious illness in immunocompromised people.
Loss of crops could lead to more dust storms, like this one in Tempe, Arizona. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU
But we’re not talking about a nuclear-level disaster, right?
Not a disaster, no. But a complication, yes.
Palo Verde Generating Station, built west of Phoenix in 1976, is the only nuclear plant in the world that is not adjacent to a large water source, like a river or ocean. The three reactors are cooled by 23 billion gallons of treated wastewater piped along 36 miles of concrete pipeline every year from the city of Phoenix and surrounding communities.
What if cities want to divert that wastewater to be treated and reused in homes?
If the effluent suddenly stopped flowing, it wouldn’t present a safety hazard. The plant can safely shut down without it.
But the plant is now investigating ways to consume less water, such as re-treating water it has used once or finding a way to reduce evaporation.
Will less water mean less building?
Not necessarily. For one thing, household water use has declined so much that while the population of Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties has increased 45% over the past 20 years, water use has increased only 14%, according to the Kyl Center for Water Policy’s Water Blueprint.
Also, every municipality has its own water profile. Some rely more heavily on Colorado River water than others. And some places have been factoring a decreased water supply into their planning for years.
Porter is eager to bust myths about development.
“The two biggest things that people say that are wrong are that no one has any business farming in the desert and that population growth is the reason for the water supply issues.
“It's much more complicated than that.”
Will this crisis force scientists to innovate amazing solutions?
There have already been technological advances to make Arizona farming more water efficient — genetically modified crops that are more tolerant of drought or saline, better pesticide management, laser leveling of fields to improve irrigation and advancements in watering systems.
Globally, researchers are working on technologies to capture water from the atmosphere and desalinate at a small scale.
And technology will be harnessed to monitor the river. White is involved in a research project with NASA and the Central Arizona Project to combine satellite data with hydrological models to improve management of water allocations.
“We will have a finer-grain, more spatially explicit understanding of how climate change and other factors like forest management practices are going to affect the availability of surface water in different areas of the Colorado River Basin,” he said.
But Weiss thinks that technology alone won’t solve the water crisis.
“Sometimes it's not a scientific problem, it's a human problem,” he said.
“I have anxiety when governance doesn't do anything, hoping and wishing that a magical solution will be formed sometime in the future.
“It's kicking the can down the road and asking for science to create more solutions because they say, ‘We can't afford the solution.’ ”
What if it rains a lot and the river fills back up?
White said that strong evidence from the National Climate Assessment and other sources shows that won’t happen.
“This is the new normal,” he said.
“We need to adjust to a more permanent situation of significantly lower water supplies from the Colorado River.”
Should we be anticipating a dystopian landscape?
Porter isn’t pessimistic. She believes that although hard choices have to be made, there’s enough water to go around.
But she does have worries. The Yuma area and the Imperial Valley, with good weather and rich soil, are logical places for farming, and water cuts will affect agriculture there.
“I worry that we might be losing important agricultural production that will have impacts on national food security and nutrition,” she said.
But Arizona’s climate problems are not as dire as other areas, she said.
“Houston is looking at ‘How do we wrangle hurricanes?’ Boston is looking at, ‘How do we build a sea wall?’
“The problem that central Arizona cities are looking at is, ‘How do we make sure we have enough water?’ And in the scale of the big challenges the different cities are looking at, this is a very solvable one. We know what the solutions are.
“So I don't feel like there's a good reason to not feel hopeful.”
She believes engineering and management improvements will stretch or even augment available supplies.
The Kyl Center has produced a tsunami of information and data that leaders can use to make good decisions. But they need to act.
“This is really about our commitment to good water management and knowing that it will cost money and it can sometimes mean saying no to some things. And that's the tough part,” she said.
“It's totally doable.”
Arizona’s water picture is much bigger than the Colorado River. For a more complete description of our water system, the complicated issues surrounding who gets the water and what might happen in the long term, visit the Arizona Water Blueprint, an interactive platform created by the Kyl Center for Water Policy at ASU.