Divy Shrivastava and Trevor Pennypacker’s software allows a first look at the site—to verify an address, to evaluate a fire, to avoid a crowd. This could really be a game-changer for the way 911 calls are handled!
Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Coming to you today from the Microsoft Technology Center in Houston. My guests are the Co-founders of Paladin Drones: Divy Shrivastava and Trevor Pennypacker. Guys, welcome to the show.
Divy: Thanks for having us, Russ. Great to be here.
Russ: Tell us about Paladin Drones.
Divy: Paladin Drones deploys autonomous drones to 911 calls. The software that we’ve built allows any first responder– fire, EMS, or police– to get a live, overhead view of an emergency before they arrive. So, let’s say this building was on fire. As soon as you call 911, obviously, the firefighters are going to be on their way, but one of our drones will also be on route. The drone will get there before the firefighters. We don’t have to worry about traffic, obviously. So, within 30-90 seconds, the drone is here. It’s circling overhead and it’s basically capturing a live feed of everything that’s going on, and then that feed is being sent back to the firefighters who are already on route, but they can use that feed to just have a better plan of attack. The information that you tell them, somebody who is panicking, saying, “hey, this building is on fire,” you’re not going be able to tell them this is a multi-structure building, or that maybe there’s a crowd gathering on the west side. With our video footage, they have that information available instantaneously.
Russ: Ok, so the truck that’s actually coming to the fire is watching the full video.
Trevor: Exactly. There’s a laptop in the truck, and a standard firetruck has maybe one person driving and three people next to them. The driver is obviously focusing on the road, and the other three people that are in the vehicle are watching the video feed live. As they’re on route to the emergency, they’re watching the video feed, they’re communicating with each other, they’re figuring out a plan of attack, so a soon as their feet are on the ground at the scene of the emergency, they can start putting water on the fire or start combating whatever emergency it may be.
Russ: How long have you guys been doing this?
Divy: We’ve been at this full-time for about a year. The idea started when we were both freshman in college, really. We’d been working part-time since then. The first idea came actually when, unfortunately, I was finishing high school, it was summer, and my friend’s house burned down. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but that’s when I first started talking to the firefighters. In this specific case, they said they didn’t have the right location, because the person who called it in was just a neighbor who was on a walk. They said, “a lot of times we just don’t have enough information.” And that just struck me as really wrong. For me, if I need information, it’s on my phone. Why aren’t the heroes who are helping save lives have access to similar stuff? So, I’d been flying drones for a little bit; crashing them, mostly. I had just started picking up coding and I was going to go to Cal, so I figured maybe this could be a side project. When I went to Cal, I started talking to more firefighters and they had the same complaint. They said, “You know, we just don’t have enough information.” I happened upon Trevor because my best friend from high school was actually in Trevor’s engineering program. Immediately, Trevor caught on because Trevor was mentored by his local fire chief, so he completely understood the pain points. For about a year and a half, Trevor and I had a very awesome long-distance relationship. He was at Penn, I was at Berkeley, just sharing ideas, building a prototype. We built it out, and then one thing led to another, and we’re living together now.
Russ: All right, good deal. So, mentored by a fire chief; what does that mean? This is after you’ve embraced the idea or…?
Trevor: No, this is back when I was 2-3-4 years old.
Russ: Ok. Early mentoring.
Trevor: My parents found out I had a peanut allergy, had no idea, you know, how do you raise a kid that we have no knowledge about. The local fire chief had the same allergy and he was like, “no, you can do anything you want in life with a food allergy. You can even become a fire chief like me.” I thought that was amazing, and so when we came up with this idea, you know, 15 years after that, I went and talked to him and he is a Harvard graduate, very smart guy, and he caught onto the idea too. We did some demos to him; he gave us some ideas on what we could implement and he’s just been a great ear for support if we need help.
Russ: Ok, interesting. Divy, back to the instance that caused this, the friend’s house that burned down. Even in your method, if you have the wrong address, it’s not going to help, right?
Divy: It actually will. As the drone is getting on scene, the camera is pointing towards the horizon, for multiple reasons. One, we don’t want to pick up somebody else’s backyard; but two, if there is a fire, the camera will pick up that smoke. If we get the general vicinity, as the drone gets closer, it will alter its course to get to the correct location and will actually send that location back to the firefighters. So, if it’s a block away, or heck, even if it’s a mile away, we’re able to update them in real time.
Russ: Ok, so your software actually finds the fire, the smoke, and goes to it.
Divy: We can. Exactly. We have some pretty sophisticated fire detection algorithms that can help locate the fire if need be. We also have a thermal camera on the drone which helps in picking up things called hotspots, which are crucial parts of the fire that firefighters need to target. So, we give that information back to them.
Russ: Well, I guess even if there’s no smoke, I mean, the idea that your drone goes to the address and it can see there’s nothing here, that’s even valuable information as well, right?
Trevor: Exactly. To give you an example, we were in California this past summer and someone called in panicked, saying there was an entire factory on fire. Normally, the fire department would dispatch four to five trucks. The entire police department would show up. This is like a big scale emergency. We got the drone there as the firefighters were leaving the station, like 60 seconds after the call came in. In the video feed, you could very easily tell this is a smokestack, and it was just a panicked citizen, concerned about the fires there had been in Northern California that summer. There wasn’t a need to send the entire department, so you could still have units in reserve in case of another real emergency, so you’re not left stranded if another call comes up during that.
Russ: Ok, so geographically, we’ve talked about Berkeley, I think, and Penn State. But you guys are right here in Houston, Texas now, right?
Divy: Yeah, we’re here now.
Russ: Ok, and you have customers here?
Divy: We are working with Memorial Villages.
Russ: Memorial Villages, wow.
Divy: We’re working with their police department to deploy our drones. Actually, right now there is a drone active in case there is an emergency. As soon as a 911 call is placed, if it’s a fire alarm, if it’s a burglar alarm, if there’s a traffic incident, it will be deployed automatically.
Russ: Wow, so no human is involved in that part. I mean, it just goes, and it goes to it. Is there ever a human involved?
Divy: We have a pilot on duty. Our tech technically doesn’t need a pilot, but in case something happens. We want to have that person there to take over manual controls. Right now, there’s a pilot there looking over the drone, maintaining visual line of site with the drone at all times, basically our operator there in case there’s an emergency.
Russ: Ok, and so the residents in Memorial Village know this, accept it, and applaud it, and like it?
Trevor: Yeah, we’ve made a big effort to reach out to the public as much as we possibly can. The Chief sends out an email every week with updates on what we’re doing. We’ve gone to cookouts, and farmer’s markets, and we’re actually going to be televising their Fourth of July parade for them so the people who can’t make it can see it. We really make sure to communicate that we are not invading anybody’s privacy whatsoever. So, on route to the emergency, the camera, as Divy was saying, is not pointed at the ground, it’s pointed at the sky. We scan for aircraft, smoke, things like that, but we also really only want to record the actual emergency and details pertinent to the emergency. We’ve communicated this very clearly to the citizens, and it’s really helped get them on board with what we’re doing.
Russ: Ok, so we have to talk about your fundraising, because you have been successful at that, correct?
Divy: Yeah, thankfully, we have been fortunate.
Russ: Ok, and so you’re funded forever now, you think?
Divy: No, that would be great, you know? We could offer the service free. But no, we were lucky enough to have raised a $1.3 million seed round with backing from notable VCs such as Khosla Ventures and Paul Buchheit, who actually created Gmail, and the Facebook Like button, too. We’ve got some very smart people who believe in the mission and are helping us in every way that they can.
Russ: And this was through Y Combinator, right?
Divy: Yes, this was through Y Combinator. Y Combinator is a three-month program, essentially a boot camp for startups. If you’ve heard of really big names like Airbnb, Coinbase, Dropbox, they all went through this. They all went through there, so we were part of their summer ’18 cohort. It was, I think, really a life changing experience for all of us because we had no idea what it meant to run a company. Not that we do now, but we’ve learned a little bit. They definitely told us, you know, here are a lot of common mistakes, try to avoid them. The best part is if we have some sort of issue, we can always just talk to our mentors there. Literally a week ago I was trying to figure out how we wanted to expand, and I called up one of our mentors, Michael, and Michael just called me at 2am. You don’t want to turn away a call from Michael. He actually, was a Co-founder for Twitch, if you’re familiar with that. So, he called me up at 2am, we had a very long conversation about what to do and what not to do. It was super helpful, and it’s helped us tremendously.
Russ: Drones are becoming so popular and they’re so diverse in their applications. Do you guys look outside of your present focus, too?
Trevor: Yeah, definitely. We want to start with police and fire because we know them best. We think they have a very immediate need right now for what we’re doing. Once we sort of get our foot in there, there are a lot of other areas that we think eyes in the sky in under 60 seconds could be extremely useful for. So, working with the Coast Guard for search and rescue. If you can imagine, you have a thermal camera flying over the water looking for heat signatures of people. Really, any sort of situation where there’s a need to get eyes in the sky quickly. Public works to check for, you know, is this road flooded? Is it blocked by a tree? We actually had a demonstration with a police department in the area where there happened to be at that time a tree that had just fallen and they didn’t know where it was. In the demo, in under 60 seconds, we found that tree blocking the road for them. Things like traffic patterns, for instance, are pretty difficult to tell on the ground, but from the sky they’re super easy. Finding car accidents, for instance, we can find them lightning fast. That difference in time is really the difference between life and death in a lot of situations.
Russ: Sure, ok. Divy, Trevor, thank you guys so much for sharing your story with us.
Trevor: Thanks for having us on, Russ.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with the Co-founders of Paladin Drone. And this is HXTV.
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