I have known UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund – to be working mainly to help provide children in vulnerable communities around the world with education opportunities.
But to have a prototype of a portable solar-enabled communication hub that would serve as a tool kit in emergency situations as well as a video-conferencing tool in remote village schools for easier interaction in the learning environment is a plus for the UN agency.
What’s more, the hub can also be adapted to function as community radio station that runs on the free, open source Linux operating system and which is able to provide FM transmission for a range of 5 or more kilometers.
But the BEE is more than an internet kiosk, it is a new way of thinking, so says Erica Kochi, UNICEF information officer. “It is an intersection of innovations, while still in the proof-of-concept phase, the BEE can be seen working in a variety of situations”.
As its name suggests, the BEE is designed to be a hive of numerous functionalities: it can provide informational, communication, and educational opportunities for children in remote or emergency situations.
It was originally envisioned by UNICEF’s Department of Communication four months ago as an information tool that could be utilized in community or school environments during an emergency but while nearing completion the prototype provided the designers with new ideas.
It emerged that it could be used for a variety of purposes whether for information exchange, a radio station, a way to deliver curriculum, ensure business continuity, or deliver entertainment and give people, especially children, a voice.
The designers who collaborated in the project – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa (CSIR), its subsidiary the Meraka Institute, Inveneo and Round Box Global – have varied experience in field innovations including internet-enabled information kiosks in rural African communities and voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) telephony for refugee camps.
The good news, however, is that the BEE can be used in situations where there is no electricity, using solar panels to power the device and charge batteries, which will provide power at night or during cloudy conditions.
It has great adaptability features – a unit can operate within temperature and humidity extremes of between -30 to 50 degrees Celsius and 5% to 95% condensing humidity. All exterior surfaces of unit and mast are composed of material that is highly resistant to rot, fungus, mold, termites, oxidation, and any other long-term decay.
It can also be used at night to display video presentations and educational materials using low-power LED devices. Each “Queen BEE” station can communicate with other smaller “Worker BEE” sub-stations that are in the line of site (up to 100km away) using mast antennas–located either on physical antennas or placed high on structures or trees–providing VOIP and communications to other units.
The BEE can also pull data from satellite feeds and be used to share stories and community maps, documentation, and essays with other users.
After the production-ready model is created, it will be tested in remote areas in South Africa. Kochi says the goal is to test the BEE in five field locations that each pose unique climate, security, and remote location constraints.
The prototype is a bold concept and its success will be determined by the response it receives once the roll out begins – that is, if the US$ 6,000 production cost does not transform it into another luxury tool poor communities can ill afford.