Exploring the Innovation Mindset

An exclusive Q&A with brothers Seyed and Reza Rahavi, the team that won the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s AMPS engineering challenge

Reza Rahavi (left) and his brother Seyed Rahavi are Canadian engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs who won the AMPS engineering challenge presented by Freelancer.com

Reza Rahavi (left) and his brother Seyed Rahavi are Canadian engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs who won the AMPS engineering challenge presented by Freelancer.com

Seyed and Reza Rahavi know a thing or two about innovation. Seyed received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in Mechatronics Engineering, completing extra training courses in industrial automation, microcontrollers and embedded systems programming, CNC machining and electrical wiring. His brother Reza studied biotechnology for his bachelor’s, epigenetics for his master’s and childhood cancer for his PhD candidacy.  

In 2008, while still in university, the brothers completed their first professional engineering project, a dual flow continuous culture fermentation system. That project took three years to complete, but gave them the credentials for more challenging projects, including a wireless temperature measurement system, an automatic electrochemical grease pump, a pallet shuttle robot and an electromagnetic vacuum dryer. 

“Working together as a team has strong roots to our childhood when we both did many tinkering projects together, from electronics to chemistry,” says Seyed. “Our father was always supportive and provided us supplies such as batteries, switches, motors, wires and basic tools like screw drivers, pliers and other tools for the projects.” 

This longstanding teamworking culminated in a winning submission to the AMPS Challenge, a competition launched in 2021 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Freelancer.com looking for a solution to automate protection systems testing used at hydroelectric power plants to eliminate outages necessary to accomplish the testing and improve hydropower plant reliability. 

After the 2003 blackout, a comprehensive list of testing protocols was developed and designed to prevent another large power outage. However, these protocols are labor-intensive and require the plant to be off-line. Automating this process would not only save time and money but allow workers to be allocated to other tasks.  

The Rahavi brothers were one of 90 total submissions to the challenge and designed the Automatic Testing Relay Software (ARTS), which was announced as the winning submission in August 2022. This system communicates with intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) to perform real-time validation and status reporting. Critical protection system components including potential transformers, current transformers, relays, and communications channels are automatically monitored for function and accuracy.  

The system includes automatic collection of setting alterations, analog channels signal metering, event reports and disturbance records to provide enterprise-level event storage and analysis. The system design was tested using the laboratory test stand. Two major distinctions between traditional protection system maintenance and the testing performed by the ARTS are the automatic and continuous natures of the monitoring and reporting. Traditional protection system maintenance is performed by technicians when returning equipment to service following infrequent and expensive tests or repairs. The ARTS system instead constantly monitors the condition and performance of in-service equipment, evaluating and reporting the overall health of the system. In doing so, the ARTS system improves the overall reliability of the bulk electric system by performing continuous real-time evaluations of critical protection system components. 

Engineering.com caught up with the Rahavi brothers not long after the announcement of the winning submission. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity: 

Engineering.com (EC): Lets dig into your process of winning engineering competitions, How did you come up with this award-winning idea? 

Seyed and Reza (S&R): Understanding the challenge is the key. I have seen many skilled engineers who propose solutions that do not address all the challenge’s requirements. 

For this purpose, we study challenge documents carefully and make an accurate checklist of the requirements. The Bureau of Reclamation hosted a Q&A session through Freelancer.com which helped outline the requirements. 

Then we gather as much as data for each item, such as the similar work, patents, papers, instructions, datasheets, videos, etc. We try to learn how people approach these issues. This provides more direction on how to approach the challenge.  

The next step is to propose a real-world solution that covers all requirements without any interference with innovations. This step is quite tricky, low-level solutions might not be selected as the winner; very high-level solutions might not meet the deadlines. Everything in a challenge must be in equilibrium. Sometimes knowing your opponents’ background helps you to have a better prediction.  

EC: How do you tackle each stage of the process, from the innovation approach to testing? 

S&R: There were three main phases in the AMPS challenge: 

Phase 1, Submitting White Papers—In this stage all interested competitors submit written proposals that explain how they want to approach the challenge requirements. In this stage our team provided two different approaches to the challenge requirements (Automatic Relay Testing Software, ARTS and Intelligent Self-Testing System, ISTS). Initially, 10 solutions were to be selected from about 90 submissions. But only eight entries were selected and two of them belonged to our team. Both ARTS and ISTS were selected in this stage. 

Phase 2, Preliminary Judging—The teams selected had to provide written and multimedia documents from their developed prototypes and provide enough evidence that they can meet the challenge requirements. Five solutions were selected for the next stage, including our ARTS submission. Due to limited resources and time constraints, we decided to focus our resources on the ARTS solution. 

Phase 3, Final Submission—In this stage the five remaining prototypes were completed and shipped to the Bureau of Reclamation facility in Denver, Colo. This was a challenging period for our team to meet the deadlines. It was a period of working 16 hours per day seven days a week, but in the end our ARTS submission was selected as the winner of this challenge.  

EC: Do you have specific examples of problems you’ve faced and how you tackled them? 

S&R: The key point was how to communicate with the protective hardware and process the huge amount of collected data.  

In the ARTS we simplified the hardware development by purchasing off-the-shelf products and found a high-speed communication protocol which benefits the compressed methods to transfer data. But this method was not well documented and there were not enough instructions and technical info on how to use it. We found that it was developed by the manufacturers for specific third-party companies who want to develop monitoring software. By digging through the technical documents, performing lots of trial and error, we successfully developed our software based on this protocol. That was a gamble because of couldn’t decode this protocol, we might have lost everything. But in the end we found out how to benefit from this protocol and this brought lots of advantages to our solution. 

EC: How do you come up with innovative solutions when you lack background in the area? 

S&R: Extensive background and experience in a particular topic is often followed by excessive confidence in current working methods. In other words, this extensive background in a topic creates subconscious resistance against trying new ideas, methods and solutions.  

Don’t get us wrong, you need to have knowledge of current methods in order to innovate. However, this knowledge can be gained relatively quickly by interviewing experienced people, reading current research papers, talking to experts in the field and building networks.   

EC: What is your advice to engineers for thinking outside the box? 

S&R: First you should understand what IS inside the box and understand how current systems work. Be curious and don’t be afraid to ask oversimplified questions. True experts in a field can simplify their answer enough so you can understand. There is a big gap between academia and industry. Use that to your advantage, often higher-level experienced people in the field do not read or follow what is happening in related research papers.  

Finally, form and nurture your own ideas and don’t be afraid to fail.  

EC: Could you expand on your use of surprisingly simple approaches to solve a known challenge? 

S&R: In our approach we follow four simple steps, and we document everything. First, identify the problem in the simplest terms. Second, create a list of alternative solutions—this list could be from our own research, creativity or leads we got from experts in the field. Third, evaluate alternative solutions in terms of feasibility, cost and technological limitations. Lastly, implement and develop the best solution. There is nothing out of the ordinary, just these simple steps.  

EC: How do you identify and rule out bad ideas? 

S&R: Challenges and competitions have tight time constraints, so it is important to rule out bad ideas quickly. Identifying bad ideas is not difficult since we continually study limitations, costs, timelines etc. The difficult task is trying not to get emotionally attached to an idea we have invested in. For instance, sometimes we order tools, equipment, parts and invest time in one idea. Then we realize there is a better way, our initial response is to stay attached to the inferior solution and defend it because of our initial investment. It takes a lot to let go and start over with the better solution.  

EC: What is your approach when conducting interviews with experts in the field or doing research to identify solutions? 

S&R: Similar to the Socratic Method, we try to form an honest dialogue between the expert and ourselves. We continually probe questions, in a rigorous effort to explore the underlying reasons, standards, mechanisms and concepts that shape the current solutions. Not all experts are open to long interviews, so preparing and studying as much as we could beforehand helps build a good report with the expert during the interview. Being humble and having a sense of humor goes a long way as well.  

EC: Is there something else about your approach that you’d like to expand on? 

S&R: We are very happy to help youth and individuals who in their earlier stages of training in order to assist them achieve their goals. We work with the philosophy of youth empowerment we can be reached through this email address: director@vitroventures.ca 

The AMPS Challenge was launched in partnership with the Western Area Power Administration, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NASA Tournament Lab, Freelancer.com and Arrow Electronics. Click here to learn more about the competition.