Engineering for Good: How Engineering Students Helped Irrigate a Town
Amy Bilton’s student team took an engineering approach to international outreach, and developed a wind-powered pump to alleviate drought.
While the humanoid robots of I, Robot may still be far into the future, questions about robotic decision-making are already becoming relevant today. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)
The Winds of Change engineering team stands with their completed windmill behind them. They designed the windmill to pump enough water to irrigate the fields of Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua during the dry season. (Image courtesy of Rob Scott, UofT Engineering News.)

QUICK READ

  • Amy Bilton and her team of student engineers worked with the charity Winds of Change to design and build a water-pumping windmill for Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua.
  • The project took shape across two years and three design teams, and involved frequent on-the-fly redesigns to accommodate for challenging conditions on the ground.
  • Bilton credits the team’s success to the diversity of viewpoints involved in the project.
  • Access to clean water is a serious global problem, one that engineers can play a part in tackling. To join the search for inexpensive water desalination, scroll down.

It sounds like a tall order: a project completed by three separate teams on two different continents, with reworks necessary because of material shortages. But Amy Bilton and the Winds of Change team were able to battle through those challenges to achieve their objective: a windmill to pump water for irrigation during Nicaragua’s dry season.

Along the road to success, the team learned valuable lessons about collaborating across teams, countries, and areas of expertise.

Winds of Change began as an engineering-based take on international outreach. On a trip to rural Nicaragua, engineer John Shoust and management consultant Rob Scott noted that one of the biggest problems facing the locals was the inability to irrigate during the dry season. While the area has plenty of groundwater, hand-pumping the water doesn’t generate enough water for irrigation, and diesel and electricity are expensive and impractical to run through the region.

Instead, Shoust and Scott hit on the idea of using local materials to design a windmill that could power a pump on its own. The resulting initiative, which the duo named Winds of Change, partnered with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Assistant Professor Amy Bilton, head of the university’s Centre for Global Engineering, led the U of T side of the organization.

In 2014, Bilton established a capstone project with a team of fourth year engineering student to develop a windmill for the people of Nicaraguan town Pedro Arauz. Three separate teams of undergraduate students worked to design and build the windmill in what Bilton calls “an iterative process,” testing and refining the design as necessary. In the 2014-2015 academic year, the first team travelled to Nicaragua to consult with locals about their needs and gather information on material availability and local wind conditions.

After their visit, the student team developed a design for a windmill with a connected pump, consulting with locals throughout the design process. Finally, they returned to Pedro Arauz to build their prototype and dig a foundation alongside community members.

The process of building the windmill onsite involved quite a bit of redesigning on the fly. “There were many challenges we needed to overcome in the field,” Bilton says. “Some of those were regarding the availability of materials in the field. For example, when sourcing the steel and other parts locally in Tipitapa, often the originally specified materials would not be available. This meant a lot of engineering in the field, redoing analysis, and redesigning aspects.”

Over the next summer, Bilton chose two more teams to address design issues with the windmill and the attached pump. One of the teams developed a braking mechanism to stop the windmill if necessary, and the other one refined the design of the pump. When they were finished, the teams revisited Pedro Arauz and built a windmill out of wire, sheet metal and PVC piping alongside the locals.

To Bilton, the diversity of perspectives was one of the features most essential to the project’s success. “The students at UofT and the community members provided innovative approaches to deliver water for irrigation in Nicaragua. The next level, Winds of Change and Seeds of Learning provided the context and networks to be able to deliver the needed services on the ground.”

Bilton hopes that more charitable organizations follow Winds of Changes’ lead. “In my experience talking to NGO partners, many organizations lack the technical expertise and time to think about how technology can improve their projects. By partnering NGOs, community members, and engineering expertise, we can think together about how to address some of the world’s toughest challenges.”

For engineers interested in getting involved in the global outreach field, Bilton recommends starting small and individual. “My biggest piece of advice is to start with developing partnerships. Strong field partners with established relationships are essential to understanding local context and to getting to the point where you are able to collaborate with community members. Without this, these types of projects will not be successful.”

While she emphasizes the need for tech solutions that are individualized to their location, she points to the solutions proposed by the 50 Breakthroughs project as a good place to start. The project has identified the 50 technological advancements that would most improve the lives of people living in poverty around the globe (i.e. inexpensive desalination, a cure for malaria, more affordable smartphones, etc.)

Bilton doesn’t downplay the difficulty of her project, but she does say that it has been very rewarding. “We learned a great deal in the process,” she says. “First, always expect things to take twice as long as you expect, due to power outages, lack of materials, and other logistics issues. Second, always plan for iteration in the field as things are never as you expect. Lastly, the people are the warmest and most welcoming that we’ve ever met. They are always willing to work together so we can learn from each other.”

For engineers interested in collaborating on a similar project, check out the search for a renewable, scalable, inexpensive desalination solution.

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