For one group of young Providence Day alumni, a Middle School class project has led to a business partnership that has the potential to someday transform how our country detects and fights wildfires.
Providence Day Class of 2020 graduates Nandita Balaji, Shreyas Bhasin, Kevin Kaspar, and Zoe Sherman have created InfernoGuard, a technologically-driven forest fire detection and warning system that will collect, analyze, and deliver environmental data to provide prompt notification of wildfire risk. With help from Northwestern University, they are poised to launch the product publicly in the coming years - and they credit Providence Day for teaching them to be innovators.
The idea to pursue a project about wildfire detection was a matter of coincidence. In fall 2016, over 70,000 acres of forest burned in a series of wildfires in the Nantahala National Forest and in the Asheville, North Carolina area. At that time, the team was in the midst of picking a project for eCYBERMISSION, a problem-solving competition where participants address an issue in their community.
“That day there were wildfires in Asheville which created smoke on the PD campus. The school sent an email saying ‘be careful going outside and be aware of your health,’” Balaji recalls. As the fires burning 100 miles away impacted their lives in Charlotte, she recalls, “we started thinking about the gravity of the situation and how forest fires are a serious problem. There’s no way to address them or stop them early. We saw that there was a need for a product that could prevent forest fires and improve the situation.”
“We all have a passion for service and giving back to the community as well as STEM, and this is a great combination of the two,” Kasper says. Team Charger Fire (now InfernoGuard) won first place in the state and Southeast regional competitions and then attended the National Judging and Educational Event in summer 2017 as National Finalists. “Those experiences at Nationals were a time for us to bond and get to know each other and also surround ourselves with a lot of like-minded individuals whose passions are similar to ours. That gave us the courage and inspiration to enter other competitions as well.”
Following the eCYBERMISSION competition, the team entered The Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, which bridged the gap between creating a product and commercializing it. “We learned more about the business aspects of product development – taking the idea of it, creating an investment pitch, and developing a business plan,” Balaji says. “It was helpful to start thinking about the long-term implementation of our product and getting it to scale.” The team placed as National Semi-Finalists in the spring of 2018.
At this point, the group of four started thinking about InfernoGuard as a business instead of just an experiment, and developed a business plan while participating in the Blue Ocean Competition. This “Shark Tank”-like virtual competition allows participants to pitch their innovative business ideas to experienced entrepreneurs while competing for cash prizes, and the team walked away with fourth place out of more than 550 participants. “Being in all of these competitions with PD support is what convinced me personally to go into engineering,” says Kaspar.
From the first days of participating in eCYBERMISSION in seventh grade until now, the team credits PD faculty and administrators for their support. “PD is the reason we are where we are now 100 percent,” says Sherman. “Using PD’s resources was incredible and it really allowed us to build our first prototypes. We used PD’s laser cutters and 3D printers in the MakerSpace. In 10th grade, I spent every moment I had in the Makerspace working on this product. It was incredible the amount of support we were given.”
Former PD teachers Matthew Ricket and Ashley McClelland ’09, along with current teachers Todd Johnson, James Reeder, and Upper School Head Eric Hedinger are credited with helping to problem-solve, assist with coding, and offer support at each stage of the journey. “We have received so much support, from PD especially, in the past few months,” Sherman says. “We were all off-campus initially except for Shreyas so we didn’t have any access to 3D printers or building materials. We reached out to PD and they were kind enough to let us use their 3D printers to build our most recent prototype. We owe so much gratitude to PD for that.”
Current PD student Max Owens ’22 reached out to the InfernoGuard team with extensive coding and software experience and joined as a technical consultant in January of 2021. “He’s already been a huge help,” Kaspar says. “He has a ton of knowledge and I know he will do incredible things someday because he’s already helping us so much with our code and software.”
The prototype has come a long way since the early days. Now, “the prototype is as small as my head,” says Kaspar. “We want to make it as small as possible so it’s easy to implement onto a tree. Before, we had a box that was this big,” he said, holding his arms wide. Sherman agrees. “Carrying that around PD every day was a lot. Especially in the cold because the box would get cold. I remember so many times carrying that up and down from the MAC!”
When in use, the InfernoGuard device will be placed at eye level on a tree, collecting a variety of environmental data including temperature, humidity, and smoke levels from the device’s sensors. During this constant intake of data, the unique Artificial Intelligence (AI) software will analyze each device and determine if a wildfire is present. From there, a notification will be sent to users and emergency management officials to improve response time and minimize negative impacts for at-risk communities.
At this time, communications are sent solely via text message, but the team is actively seeking to send notifications via a website and/or mobile app in addition to text messaging. The device is powered by a battery placed inside and receives additional power from solar panels placed at the top of the equipment.
“One of the first things we are working on for the future is a big software update,” says Bhasin. “Right now it’s good and effective but we want to upgrade it...so it has the ability to communicate with other devices.” In a situation where there is no satellite or cellular connection for data collecting, Bhasin hopes to send the signal to another device that might be in the range of a signal.
Another big area of focus for the team is Artificial Intelligence. “We want to put in a server where you can collect the data and run a program that will scan the data. With fluctuating temperatures in different areas and different seasons, AI could help us figure out what threshold values to [use],” Bhasin says. “For example, in California, it could say to put the threshold temperature at 120 degrees. At 120 degrees a fire is likely to occur, versus a spot in the Amazon rainforest where it might be hotter.”
“We are trying to develop a low-cost device because developing a device that doesn’t burn in a fire is 4-5 times more expensive,” Kaspar adds. “So, utilizing material that will be fire-resistant and gather data in the fire and potentially burn in the fire – depending on the height and the heat of the fire – is kind of what we’re thinking right now.”
The list of future improvements continues to grow. The team plans to research pertinent environmental data, the use of specific materials such as heat-resistant phenolic resins to create molds for the device’s exterior, improved device communication, new hardware called a Particle, improved sensors, analysis of competitors on the market, and even the development of an app where users can see data regarding their devices while simultaneously seeing other devices in the surrounding area to improve evacuation times.
Determining who to sell InfernoGuard to is complex because forests can be publicly owned, owned by private companies, or the property of individual landowners. “Our customer base includes campsites and nature preserves or national parks with access to large amounts of land but not necessarily full coverage of that land,” Kaspar says. “Those are some of our target markets, plus residential areas where homes and property and businesses are set in a specific community that is at risk for a wildfire.”
When a wildfire is approaching, people require adequate time to evacuate, so the priority is implementing the devices in high-risk communities that are likely to be damaged. “The goal is to see as many of these spread out over the forest as we can in as many different places as possible,” Bhasin says. “With global warming and climate change going on, we feel that this device is very helpful and useful and want to see it used in as many places as we can.”
InfernoGuard is currently part of “The Garage” at Northwestern University, which is an entrepreneurship space that has launched over 400 companies in five years. “We work with a mentor assigned to us who is in the industry to help us move our project forward,” Kaspar says. “All four of our schools have great opportunities to pursue funding and we’re utilizing those resources.”
In February of 2021, the team was accepted into Northwestern’s The Garage Summer Pre-Accelerator, which provides the team with $10,000 to pursue the company and will include 40+ hours a week of dedicated work toward this venture.
By the summer of 2021, InfernoGuard is looking to incorporate the company and create a founders’ agreement. Once the initial business and legal items are complete, the team hopes to get the prototype to a minimum viable product that can be tested at a campsite or nature preserve for user feedback. From there, they will focus on developing branding and marketing.
“We’re still at the point where we want to learn and hear people’s experiences, just getting our name out there and for people to see what we are doing and working on right now,” Kaspar says. “Having people know the work we are doing is really important. Once we get one user who has positive feedback it will be much easier to expand our work.”
With all that the past year entailed, the InfernoGuard team remains poised for the future. “It’s not too much right now,” Bhasin says about balancing school and launching a company. “It’s not a burden, it’s something we are all really passionate about and really interested in and have spent a lot of time on already. We are happy to make time for it and love it so much.”