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Teens patent vehicle carbon monoxide device

Gregg, Wright invention takes first in national competition

Central High School seniors Parker Gregg (left) and Cayden Wright received a patent Nov. 23 for their invention, Air Alert, which can disable a vehicle if deadly levels of carbon monoxide are reached. Gregg’s father died four years ago of carbon monoxide poisoning from a running car. Mirror photo by Rachel Foor

MARTINSBURG — Four years ago, Parker Gregg’s father died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a running car. Since then, the teen has been on a mission to ensure the same fate couldn’t befall anyone else.

Now, with a patent in hand, his vision of a small carbon monoxide detector that could temporarily disable a vehicle if dangerous levels are reached has been realized.

When he first came up with the idea, Gregg immediately knew who he needed to go to — lifelong friend, classmate and tinkerer Cayden Wright.

“I was like ‘What if I could stop this from happening with the carbon monoxide detector?'” Gregg said he asked Wright. “He was like, ‘that might work.’ And then we just ran with it.”

And run with it they did — all the way to the U.S. Patent Office, where their device, Air Alert, was patented on Nov. 23.

However, the road that led to that moment was not always smooth, the Central High School seniors said.

The pair were still in middle school at the time and worked on the device during their free time. Wright said it took about six months to get the design right.

Wright said he spent a lot of time watching online tutorials to figure out how to build a device.

“It just started out, we had some buttons hooked up to lights to just work out the logic of what Parker had dreamt up,” Wright said.

The first version included a tilt sensor because they thought there might be problems if, for example, the vehicle got stuck behind a big diesel truck in traffic, Wright said. However, after rudimentary testing, the pair found that not to be an issue and eliminated the feature entirely.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” Wright said. “You make a first prototype and then you make another one and another one and another one.”

They also discovered the first prototype gave off a lot of heat and needed a way to draw excess heat from a mechanical device.

“There were some inefficiencies in the way we were delivering power to all of our circuitry and so I found out that we needed to reduce that heat factor so that we can both touch it and it doesn’t burn things,” Wright said.

The pair agreed that working that out was frustrating at times.

“Sitting up until 11 o’clock trying to troubleshoot this stupid thing and you just want to quit sometimes,” Wright said.

That modified version of Air Alert was what earned Gregg and Wright second place at the 2018 Pennsylvania Technology Student Association Region 8 Conference, even after they forgot they needed a posterboard for the competition.

According to Gregg, Wright had texted him at about 10 o’clock the night before regionals.

“I was like ‘Bud, we need a posterboard for tomorrow,” Wright said.

It all worked out though, but they said their posterboard was very rudimentary.

The pair won third place with Air Alert in the Inventions and Innovations category at the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association State Conference in 2018.

“The competition allowed us to make this whole thing and then help us improve the design,” Wright said.

The two agreed they felt the odds were against them at the state conference. For starters, they were unaware they needed three people on a team.

According to Wright, they recruited a friend to just “sit there and look pretty.”

After celebrating their third place finish in the state competition, Gregg and Wright began work on a more streamlined prototype that they would eventually take to the TSA’s national conference.

It turned out to be a little bigger, but worked a lot better, Wright said, adding that the updated version is more reliable, gives off less heat and can be repaired more easily.

The device can fit anywhere in a vehicle, as long as wires can be run to whatever needs to be controlled, such as the vehicle’s engine control unit or fuel pump, Wright said.

Once installed in a vehicle, Air Alert is always on. If one of its sensors starts to detect carbon monoxide, it emits a loud beeping noise and then shuts off the vehicle’s engine.

There are two sensors, one inside the vehicle and one outside, Wright said.

Safety was the No. 1 priority when it came to developing Air Alert, so Gregg and Wright want the alarms to trip at 400 parts per million, which is when most people will start to get a headache from carbon monoxide exposure. Then, at 800 parts per million — when there would be about two hours of exposure left until the operator fell unconscious — the car would be disabled.

“Someone would have plenty of time to evacuate the area and to also leave a little bit of wiggle room for any technical error,” Wright said. “We didn’t want to set it too close to the limit of death in case something malfunctions and goes a little over.”

Costing about $25 to create, the pair’s ultimate goal is to have the device on as many engines as possible in order to save the most lives.

“If we were ever to go to mass manufacturing, it’ll become cheaper to make a batch of them,” Wright added.

With their updated device in hand, the two looked forward to the TSA National Conference, but their club adviser resigned before the competition.

Thanks to the support of school administrators, teachers and their parents, they made it to the competition.

“A lot of the support came from our parents,” Gregg said. “They booked the flights, they mostly paid for everything that we had to do.”

Having learned from their previous poster board snafu, for nationals they made three to take with them to Atlanta. One, they sent by mail, which arrived “mangled,” according to Gregg. Another, the airline allowed them to stash in the plane’s coat closet on the way down. The last they sent with the Bedford Area High School team, which took a truck down and offered to haul supplies for them.

“It was stressful,” Wright said of the airport check-in. “We sent my dad through in a backpack with the device. We figured if we’re gonna get stopped, it’s gonna be that.”

Despite their worries, the pair arrived in Atlanta without a hitch.

Once at nationals, the two said the competition was stiff.

“It was crazy to see just the high schools that were there,” Wright said. “These were mega high schools with all sorts of equipment and people and mentors at their disposal.”

There were even exchange students from Turkey and Germany displaying their inventions.

The pair said they were up against entries that included a magnetic shirt that would allow individuals with neurological disorders to get dressed more easily and an anchored platform to park a vehicle on that could detect flood waters and inflate to lift and protect the vehicle.

Despite their worries, Gregg and Wright’s invention took first place at the national level.

“We were up against a lot of high-caliber ideas,” Wright said. “The odds truly were against us.”

“It just goes to show that it’s not the stuff you have, it’s how you use it,” he added.

While competing and tinkering with the final design, the duo were also working toward getting the device patented. It took roughly six months to design Air Alert, they said, but patenting it took close to three years.

Contrary to popular belief, a patent doesn’t have to be on something that actually works, Wright said.

The device they patented works, but not as well as it could, Wright said. Their current business model is to license the patent to a corporation that would develop the device at the company’s own cost, rather than doing the development work themselves.

“Especially as we head into college, we just wouldn’t have the time to do that along with all of our classes and whatnot,” Wright said.

Although ideally they would like to be compensated for their work, they said they were never in it for the money.

“Parker’s dad, we were doing it for him mostly,” Wright said. “Parker’s dad was a loss not just to him but to everyone else. He was truly missed by our basketball team and everyone from the community, so it was a service to the community by creating this, not just to Parker and his family.”

Throughout the project and having it patented was entirely a two-man operation.

“We truly couldn’t have accomplished it without each other,” Wright said.

As they look to the future after graduation, Wright plans to attend college and major in computer technology or a related field. In his spare time, he runs cross country, plays volleyball and continues developing other projects.

Gregg said he is still celebrating setting a state record with the Central High School football team, but next year, he plans to attend college and study either biology or kinesiology to become a chiropractor.

Gregg said is sure his dad would be proud of him — and of Wright — for not only creating the device but for how much they’ve grown over the years.

“I’m sure he would,” Gregg said. “Even if we didn’t do something like this, I’m sure he would be proud.”

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