January 26, 2011

Inventioneers Turn Heads in Nation's Capital

Members of the Inventioneers demonstrate how their prototype SMARTwheel works. 
Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- They may not have their driver’s licenses quite yet, but that doesn’t mean the six members of Londonderry’ world champion FIRST LEGO League team, the Inventioneers, can’t make a lasting impression when it comes to the safety of drivers well beyond their home state. 
Earlier this month, team members Tristan “T.J.” Evarts, 15, Jaiden Evarts, 13, Bryeton Evarts, 10, Paige Balcom, 16, Emily Balcom, 14, and Kate Balcom, 13, once again traveled to Washington, D.C., where they hobnobbed with the likes of federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, National Highway Traffic Safety Deputy Administrator Ronald Medford and the federal Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Admin-istrator Peter Appel. 
While there, the longtime teammates demonstrated the latest prototype for their SMARTwheel invention, and shared plans for an interactive school assembly program and a national patent scholarship program. 
SMARTwheel, an acronym for Safe Motor Alert for Restricting Texting, is a steering wheel cover that senses the driver’s hand movements and issues an audible alert when the driver is sending text messages. 
In a blog entry dated Jan. 14, LaHood expressed awe over the team’s accomplishments. 
“As I tested out the SMARTwheel during the team’s visit, I was impressed by how much thought and technical skill the team put into their design,” he noted. “I couldn’t be prouder of everything they’ve accomplished, and you’d better believe I’ll be on the lookout for what they do next.” 
A pilot test of this invention was conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last winter. 
“Using 20 test subjects, they drove using a simulator with and without the SMARTwheel,” Kate said, noting a 90 percent improvement in texting behavior when using the team’s prototype. 
Because education has a broader impact, the team also developed an education program, noted team member T.J. Evarts. Their DUIT program, which stands for Driving Under the Influence of Texting, has already been presented to Robert Williams, state transportation chairman. 
More recently, “DUIT” has been expanded to encompass other driving faux pas, such as “tweeting, typing, touch-screens and takeout.” 
With Paige, the team’s oldest member, preparing for her driver’s license exam, the Inventioneers originally began designing their project for use as a training tool for teenage drivers. Knowing that teen drivers are statistically 10 times more likely to be involved in a serious car crash, the idea was to help their peers learn safer habits, she noted. 
“That logic filters out all distractions while driving: eating, touching up makeup, etc.,” T.J. explained, noting that as the invention became more refined, the most recent incarnation is smaller, sturdier and more reliable. With a seventh prototype completed, the team plans to continue refining its invention. 
Following this month’s meeting with federal safety officials, Appel is arranging for the team to begin further work with MIT. Further research will take place next month in the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center at the Cambridge campus. While there, the team will continue on its mission to improve the nation’s transportation system, and also follow up on Appel’s introduction of their work to the vice president of vehicle technology at the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade association for aftermarket devices on vehicles. 
With a utility patent filed early this past December, a final patent could take up to three years to be approved. Once it’s approved, however, the Inventioneers will hold a 20-year patent for the SMARTwheel. 
While they await final patent approval, there’s no slowing down for the Inventioneers, who have since retired from competing. In April 2010 the team was presented with the Championship Award after competing in the FIRST LEGO League World Championships in Atlanta. 
The Inventioneers are looking for help gathering funds to attend the Lifesavers Conference in Phoenix this coming March. For more information, visit the team’s website at www.theinventioneers.com.

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