You’re on a camping trip with your family and you see rapidly approaching smoke and flames billowing up among nearby trees. You quickly call 911, give them your approximate location and proximity to the fire. Soon, firefighters from the nearest fire department are notified of the location of the fire and travel to the scene. Once there, they spend time trying to assess what direction the fire is spreading, the whereabouts of trapped individuals, and necessary strategies for eliminating the fire as soon as possible. In addition to the pressure of time, they have to deal with reduced visibility, the vague coordinates provided to them, and their own safety. This process takes around 2-3 minutes, while a fire can take less than 1 minute to double in size. By the time the firefighters reach you and your family, it may be too late.
Trevor Pennypacker, a sophomore at Penn studying Physics and Computer Engineering, envisions a different scenario.
“When the fire department receives a call, they push a button, which sends out one of our drones which flies autonomously to the scene of the fire. The first thing it does is it provides exact GPS coordinates of the fire. Once the firefighters are on their way, they can open up their phones or tablets and view a live 360 view of the fire so they can start to analyze the situation before they get there.”
Using this method, Trevor and his friends, Divyadita Shrivastava and Aditya Sriram, hope to allow firefighters to be more effective in their endeavours by minimizing the time spent between a fire notification and active assistance. Their company, Paladin Drones, develops a software platform for drones that allows for live, multi-device video streaming, accurate GPS reporting, and autonomous flight. In addition, their software uses thermal imaging analysis to identify and distinguish between fires, people, and other objects of interest. The potential benefit that this software platform provides is enormous.
First, accurate GPS reporting significantly reduces time spent searching for the best angle of attack. “Over 70% of provided GPS coordinates reported to fire departments are inaccurate. Our drone would go to the area that firefighters may go initially, scan the area, and then report the actual location of the fire.” Furthermore, live video streaming to multiple devices means that firefighters from different locations all have real-time views of the scene from the time the drone takes off to the time the fire is extinguished. Pairing these two features with thermal imaging analysis, firefighters can save precious time by not mistaking hot, inanimate objects with humans.
“For search and rescue missions, firefighters call in a helicopter that takes 30 minutes to an hour to arrive. A firefighter gets on with a really low quality thermal camera that costs $8000 and they just look through it. They’ll say, ‘Oh there’s a person!’, and they’ll jump down only to find out it's a rock that's been sitting out in the sun for a while. Hopefully our thermal image recognition algorithms will prevent these scenarios from occurring.”
Paladin Drones hopes to sell their drones at a cost well below other fire surveying drones, which may cost upwards of $70,000 due to expensive thermal cameras (without image recognition capabilities) and fire-proof drone bodies due to a lack of autonomous flight. Several fire departments have expressed interest in Paladin Drones' product in the form of LOIs (Letters of Intent). One fire department chief even stated that he would be willing to spend their full annual budget on Paladin Drones’ product.
The inspiration behind Paladin Drones originates from an unlikely source: Trevor’s peanut allergy.
“When I was little, my parents found out I had a peanut allergy. My parents were unsure how to raise someone with a peanut allergy because neither of them had ever had peanut allergies. It turned out that the fire chief in my town had a severe peanut allergy, and he kind of took me on when I was little and as a big mentor when I was growing up. When I was older, I realized how far behind the technology that fire departments were using was. They were using crappy, expensive thermal cameras and Windows Vista.”
Trevor, Divyadita, and Aditya knew they had to do something. “It’s not fair. It’s not right that these people are going out and risking their lives but don’t even have access to the right technology.” Their vision has becoming more and more of a reality each day. Two weeks ago, Trevor and Divy flew to California to participate in the final round of Y Combinator, the most well-known American startup accelerator. Although Paladin Drones didn’t make it into the accelerator this year, Trevor, Divy, and Aditya aren’t letting this deter them.
“We’ve learned that the most useful quality we can have is perseverance. We have faced a lot of challenges along the way including doubting our own abilities. One night last Spring when we were still throwing ideas around, Aditya and I came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no way we were going to do anything. We didn’t have the technical knowledge to build a product like this, we didn’t know anything about business, and we were just buffooning around.”
However, when they brought up these concerns with Divyadita, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Divy took it upon his shoulders to grind out a part of our software platform. In a month, we had a drone that could autonomously lift off, fly to a specified location, circle around a building, and land. After this, we all started investing a lot of time to fully realize our vision.”
While Paladin Drones still has a long way to go, Trevor already has a list of plans for the future of the company. Paladin Drones hopes to eventually be one of the first drone companies to expand into other markets that could benefit from live drone surveillance and monitoring (i.e prisons, first responders etc). Regardless of the end outcome of Paladin Drones, Trevor understands why what he’s doing is important.
“Even at the end of all of this, if we’re only able to help save just one life, it will be worth it.”