Like all those who witnessed the misery caused by the now-infamous Indian Ocean Tsunami, the events of 26 December 2004 have had a profound effect on my life. But since joining TCS I’ve been working on a solution that could save many lives if disaster were to strike again.
A quarter of a million people lost their lives and two million more were left homeless when an earthquake caused the sea floor to lift and send a deadly torrent of waves crashing down on the coastlines surrounding the Indian Ocean on that fateful day twelve and a half years ago.
As part of a group of students providing relief efforts at the Nagapattinam coast, one of the worst affected regions of India, I experienced firsthand the sheer scale of the destruction.
I vividly remember former US president Bill Clinton, who visited survivors and relief workers in his capacity as United Nations special envoy, talking about how the heavy loss of human life could have been avoided if there had been better warning systems in place.
Hammering home the point, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr. Selvi J. Jayalalithaa added that, although the warning about the imminent threat was sent by Japan to India via New Delhi, this tragically did not reach people in time.
Three years after the deadly tsunami – and with President Clinton’s and Dr. Jayalalithaa’s words still ringing in my ears – I joined TCS and held various interesting positions before starting my current role as part of the company’s TalkTalk engagement team in the UK.
Research has been a big part of my life since joining TCS – in the same year I joined the company (2007) I published my first research paper on VoIP and won a ‘best paper’ award. This research was inspired by Shanky Vishwanathan, the telecom head of TCS North America at that time.
In the intervening years, I presented several research papers including at the global conference TACTICS 2011, where the research was shortlisted for a patent to be filed by TCS IPR cell.
However, despite my varied and rewarding career at TCS, I never lost sight of the fact that someone needed to develop technology to ensure that the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 was never repeated. As it turned out, that someone was me.
How to prevent a repeat of 2004
In the years that followed the tsunami and with the arrival of improved networks and communication modes, the possibility of developing an efficient warning system for coastal areas continued to occupy my thoughts.
An initial breakthrough in terms of my research came in the form of using a digital device, such as a mobile phone, to transmit warning information for people in vulnerable areas.
Meanwhile, the Indian Government had opened a regional warning center – the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) – in Hyderabad. With the help of customized software installed at INCOIS, I worked out that warnings could be transmitted to this digital device, alerting the user in the case of imminent danger.
However, when I presented this solution at an international conference I was inundated with questions from scientists and other experts.
Most of these questions involved what would happen to people who do not have their phone with them when disaster is about to strike, as well as those who do not have access to a mobile phone at all, such as children and fishermen who are at sea.
Back to the drawing board
I analyzed each of the scenarios raised following my appearance at the conference and attempted to fine tune my solution.
The second iteration of my grand design is a wearable digital device of any shape or form, such as a wrist watch or a ring. For example, a digital bracelet that can alert those driving towards the beach area or serve as a warning to those already near the coast that they should evacuate.
Not only could this device protect those on dry land, but it could also ensure that fishing boats do not drift into dangerous or disputed waters.
The idea is that these devices can be integrated into boats so they will be automatically restrained if they accidentally swerve out of territorial waters, crossing international borders. Using the coordinates of the International Maritime Line, the device can be programmed to switch off the boat’s engine if it comes within a few hundred metres of the border line.
In September last year, I demonstrated this new and improved tsunami warning device at an international conference organized jointly by Tsunami Society International and the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.
As a result, my innovation is now documented in the centre’s crisis response protocol for tsunami warnings. I was also subsequently informed that this type of technology is not even available yet for the more advanced Atlantic and Pacific regions.
But despite this positive response for my re-worked design concept, I remained determined that my efforts in trying to develop a tsunami warning device should be used by governments for the public good and not by corporations as a way of making money.
Prototype in the pipeline
I’m proud to report that a prototype for this digital device is now being developed and I’m trying to get it patented. I’m also exploring ways to incorporate this software into the systems at the regional Tsunami warning center in Hyderabad.
Based on this research and in recognition of outstanding contribution to the scientific community and achievements in professional research and development, I won the ‘Distinguished Scientist Award’ from Pentagram Research Center Pvt Ltd in Hyderabad.
Another feather in my cap came just two months ago when I was awarded the ‘Distinguished Corporate Researcher’ title. This coincided with my keynote address at the International Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics.
I was also invited to the secretariat by government officials, including the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the Mayor of Chennai and the Minister of IT, to discuss strategies on how to take this device to the people.
Having enjoyed significant recognition for my work in developing a functioning tsunami warning device, I was invited by a US company to continue work on this project in their lab.
I refused these advances however, as my ambition will always be for this research to be implemented by the government for the people.
My challenge moving forward is to develop a durable and waterproof device at the lowest cost possible so that it is accessible to people in tsunami-prone areas.
Real-life problems and learning from the past
Whenever I’m called to deliver lectures or mentor trainees my message is always that we should put real-life situations and problems at the forefront of our considerations in terms of how we harness technology.
Researching into tsunami patterns and learning about historic warning systems prevalent in early times was a revelation for me.
I studied several ancient manuscripts, understood how different cultures reacted to natural calamities and evacuated in times of trouble as part of developing my device.
Additionally, being a member of the scientific organization Tsunami Research International gave me access to journals and expert material from around the world.
Using the advanced concepts outlined in these journals, I’m continuously refining and revising the software to be installed in the regional warning center INCOIS.
Work still to do
Coming from a defence family background, it would be fair to say that serving the nation is a part of my DNA.
My grandfather served in the Indian Army for 29 years and is a decorated World War II veteran. My father was also part of the defence establishment for a long time.
While I have taken up engineering, my goal remains the same – to serve the nation with innovations that will make a difference.
Efforts are ongoing to patent the tsunami alert device and distribute it with the help of the government.
In the meantime, I’m working towards making the design more global and universal by adding automatic switching of languages through Natural Language Processing (NLP) and tailoring it for illiterate or differently abled people.
Once this digital device is patented and implemented, my goal is to achieve a Phd to add to my engineering and management qualifications. While I have touched upon a few of my aspirations here, I am sure that there is a long way to go and that the best is yet to come!