The youngest finalist of the 'Drones for Good' competition, 17-year-old Dhruv Karthik, tells Ben East how disposable versions of his revolutionary drone ‘FIREFLY’ must be as ubiquitous as a fire extinguisher
It was New Year’s Eve, and as the eyes of the world turned to Dubai’s spectacular fireworks display 17-year-old Dhruv Karthik turned his attention to the fire that had started on the 63rd storey of The Address Downtown Burj Khalifa, instead. While thankfully, only one person was injured, a sparkler was also set off in the brain of the Dubai International Academy student. He wondered; was there was a way to search for people stranded in potentially life-threatening circumstances, without putting firefighters at unnecessary risk? His answer, as a student with profound interest in robotics and artificial intelligence, was to build a drone.
Karthik, matter of fact and highly pragmatic, understands the limitless bounds of a new technology esoteric to many. The drone he calls ‘Firefly’ is an autonomous emergency service that “I trained to navigate by itself and recognise people in a room”, he says. “I gave my drone the intelligence to explore an environment by itself and be able to detect a face, a hand movement – even some text if somebody is holding up a sign – and then relay that information to the emergency services.
“It was basically about making a smart platform that any drone with a camera could use in a rescue situation. A camera stream from a drone can easily run to a laptop, but it depends on the operator to spot anyone.”
Indeed the idea was not only recognised in the Top 50 engineering projects from over 12,000 entries in the global Google Science Fair last year, but as a finalist in the final of the Dhs1m UAE Drones For Good competition in February, beating off stiff competition from university professors and technology professionals alike.
We’re taking a fearless step in this region to say that drones are helpful rather than destructive
“I was up against multinational companies like Nokia, Dewa [Dubai Electricity and Water Authority] and Masdar Institute,” he says. “My budget was slightly different. But what I could do from my bedroom was not build the drone itself but the intelligence for the drone. And I have to say that all these big companies were not only inspiring but really helpful to me, too. It was amazing.”
In fact, Nokia’s winning entry was not so far removed from Karthik’s idea, its own drone offering real-time HD video and infrared cameras to help emergency services to provide fast response and communication in disaster zones. The similarity was not lost on the young student, who hopes that to lead the UAE’s innovative approach to flip the negative perception of the technology as invasive hyper-surveillance machines.
Techology entrepreneurs have to be fearless, he says. “There are so many kids into robotics in Dubai. I started, like many others, at 11-years-old and just stuck with it. So with all the interest in AI too, the people studying these new technologies will have a lot of impact in the coming years, I’m sure of it.
“We’re taking a fearless step in this region to say that drones are helpful rather than destructive or even obstructive. It’s not the technology which is the problem, it’s the way people choose to use it. Here in Dubai, it feels like drones are being used in a number of encouraging ways.”
There are so many kids into robotics in Dubai. I started, like many others, at 11-years-old and just stuck with it
The 17 year-old is currently applying for technology courses at US universities and is mentored by Hale Education Group in Dubai, which helps aspiring students gain US college admissions. For as long as I can remember, he says, I have wanted to study in an environment where everyone is motivated to build on their ideas, no matter how big or revolutionary they may be, and would expose me to an array of different intellectual perspectives and viewpoints.
“I do have a good portfolio, but a lot of other people do too,” he says. “Peter [Davos, Hale’s Founder and Managing Director] was willing to do anything to make sure that I was presented in the best light. Which, of course, is really important as admissions are getting really tough.”
Of course, Karthik’s spectacular achievements speak for themselves to Ivy league Universities, but whatever happens, he will continue to develop Firefly.“The platform is solid, so I want to try to give it specific applications,” he says. “My idea now is to have a small, disposable drone next to a fire extinguisher, so in the event of an emergency, it could fly off and find the optimum heat source. You could even have it loaded with extinguisher bombs, which shatter and help put out fires.”