It's a sad story, made all the more troubling by its frequency. Schoolchildren and disabled adults left inadvertently on buses and vans, in frigid cold or sweltering heat, sometimes with tragic results. But a joint project between Ball State entrepreneurship student Matt McLochlin and researchers at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Crane Division, in Indiana could help put an end to such concerns forever.
Developing a concept that allows various battlefield units to share information—digital and/or analog—on a single communications network, McLochlin and his Navy mentors have produced a "black box" device combining global positioning system (GPS), radio frequency identification (RFID), and other technologies to enable school districts and similar large fleet operators to better monitor their vehicles and those they carry.
"It's kind of like OnStar, only it does a lot more," says McLochlin, '11, from Carmel, Indiana, referring to General Motors' well known onboard car safety and vehicle security system.
In addition to providing two-way voice communication and occasional navigational or emergency assistance like OnStar, the Unified Communications System (UCS) unit devised by McLochlin and the NSWC team can, among other things, produce detailed time-in-motion information—including such factors as "idling time"—that could help transportation planners formulate more efficient school bus routes, potentially saving rural districts thousands of dollars in fuel costs.
"So, it's also very green," McLochlin says, noting that while researching possible commercial markets for the device—estimated to sell for about $1,500 each—he discovered that his home school district in Carmel operates 188 buses a day.
"Even if you improve efficiency only 5 or 10 percent, times nearly 200 buses, times five days a week … over time the difference both economically and environmentally can be significant."
But the unit's greatest promise, adds McLochlin, may be what it can do to give parents of school-age children greater peace of mind. The idea figures prominently in his sales pitch.
"Imagine you have a seventh-grade daughter, and it's the first day of school," the budding entrepreneur begins. "When do you send her off to the bus stop? When do you pick her up? Did the driver skip her stop that day? Did the driver know he or she was supposed to stop there? Did the child even get on the bus that day? Is she skipping school? What's going on?"
Taking a Main Role
Using GPS and RFID technology familiar to anyone who has competed in a 5K or 10K road race with automatic timing and scoring (keyed by the small microchip normally affixed to a shoe), the UCS first allows parents to track a child's school bus as it nears their neighborhood, reducing the time a youngster may have to wait in the dark and/or cold on a blustery school day in December. Then, once the bus arrives, an RFID scanner confirms the child's presence on board (this also can be accomplished by manually swiping the student's ID card). At the end of the morning bus ride or end of the day, the student's safe delivery at school or at home also is recorded. Any discrepancy between number "on" and number "off" immediately cues the driver or school administrators that something is amiss and needs to be checked.
"This is the greatest opportunity I've ever had in my life, to be involved in a creative research and development process like this and to take a main role," says McLochlin, who was influenced to take up the project by his father's work in the security industry. He describes the reaction of his NSWC collaborators to his proposal for developing the UCS commercially as "that deer in the headlights look, because they'd never thought of that kind of application. But when they did, they loved it!"
Innovation Key to Entrepreneurship
By the time he graduates, McLochlin says the team expects to have a refined prototype of the UCS device available for potential manufacturers (in fact, an effective business plan for the system will be McLochlin's "senior sweat" project and determine whether or not he earns his diploma). It's one of the primary goals of Ball State's entrepreneurship program and Military 2 Market (M2M) initiative under Michael Goldsby, Stoops distinguished professor of entrepreneurship.
"We're putting the focus of the Ball State entrepreneurship program on innovation and
design," stresses Goldsby. "Our goal is to be a hotbed for entrepreneurial talent in the state. The Military 2 Market program plays a major role in making this possible, and we're already seeing great results."
Experiences such as McLochlin's encourage students to be technology literate as well as business literate, prepping them to take best advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities in the 21st century, Goldsby adds.
"The future of our economy depends on entrepreneurship, and one of the key drivers is innovation."