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Earthquakes. Hostage situations. Fires. Urban warfare.
What these seemingly disparate scenarios have in common is the need for first responders to quickly ascertain the condition of an inaccessible area. People may be trapped beneath rubble after an earthquake, for example, begging the question, Are they alive? What can be done immediately to try to save them?
Following the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, Francisco Aguilar MPP 2012 realized that although thousands of people were buried under mounds of concrete, just a few specialized search and rescue teams with fiber-optic cameras and other equipment were available to help identify people’s locations. Furthermore, these devices were large, cumbersome, expensive, and required significant training.
Aguilar came up with a novel idea: a baseball-sized sphere that emergency workers or military personnel could toss into affected areas. These devices would be the eyes, ears, and noses of rescue workers and other first responders. He then teamed up with David Young, a former soldier who had served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan whom Francisco met while they both were studying for MBAs at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, to develop a system that would be designed with the front-line user in mind.
These are no ordinary balls. Each sturdy orb contains six cameras that take photographs as the ball travels into a room or other space. Images are then beamed to a smartphone or tablet, where software combines the many photos into a 360-degree panorama of the room. The balls also contain infrared LEDs, allowing for use in poorly lit situations. Different versions of the device will be equipped with additional sensors, depending on the balls’ intended use. For example, the firefighting model would contain smoke, alcohol, and oxygen sensors; the homeland security version would feature a Geiger counter and a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear detector; and the search-and-rescue version would offer vibration detectors and digital microphones.
The device was partly developed at Harvard’s new i-lab, located on Western Avenue near the Business School. Says Aguilar, “The i-lab provided us with free office space close to HKS and tools like a 3D printer to assist some of our prototyping, as well as connections to potential mentors and useful information sessions. We also had support at the same time from MassChallenge, where we also had office space and extensive mentor support.”
Prototypes of the device will be field tested in early 2013 with several local groups, including the Haverhill, MA, police force and the MIT police. At an initial cost of $500, the devices are much less expensive than other solutions. And as adoption increases, Aguilar expects the price to drop.
“We're working to develop a product with a low enough cost to the end user that it is essentially disposable if retrieval is too risky. If the sensor detects that a room is on fire or booby trapped, it is simply not worth $500 to enter that space and retrieve it," he says.
Their company, Bounce Imaging, has received the Gold Winner award of $50,000 at MassChallenge, the largest startup accelerator in the world. It also won $10,000 from the 2012 VenCorps NYC Impact Challenge. Bounce Imaging's Explorer unit was also recently named on of TIME Magazine's Best Inventions of 2012.