The 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history. Ty Audronis watched from afar as his hometown of Paradise was destroyed and began to think about how it might have been prevented.
He founded his company Tempest Droneworx to create Harbinger, a technology that would help prevent wildfires and help officials respond to the fallout of other disasters, like hurricanes and oil spills.
"The fire that burnt down Paradise was started from a 97-year-old electrical transmission line out in the forest, six miles away from the nearest observation tower and hidden behind a hill down in a valley," Audronis told Military.com. "This thing was shooting sparks for several days during the height of fire season, on a gusty day. That's essentially when the sparks land, like blowing on the embers. Nobody saw that until the smoke was coming out so thick that nobody could do anything about it."
Within four hours, 150,000 acres were burning. By the time the fire was contained, it had killed 88 people, injured 12 and after all was said and done, cost $422 billion in damages and economic loss. Audronis' parents barely survived the fire, and his childhood home was lost forever.
"With a system like Harbinger, it would have been completely preventable," he said.
Harbinger is software that combines a 1950s idea with the latest in sensors and communications technology. It uses a video-game engine to connect a drone and an array of sensors that can send information to nearly any device or location in real time, be it a Joint Tactical Operations Center, virtual reality or augmented reality goggles, or even a mobile phone. That sensor data is then overlaid onto a detailed, geographical map of an area.
"It's just like exhibits you would see in an old museum, where they're projecting a face on a blank mannequin and it's talking to you," Audronis said.
Harbinger can relay a multitude of different information streams, both common and not so common. In real time, it transmits video, thermal imaging, ultraviolet, normalized difference vegetation index that detects living and dead plant matter, decibel levels and radiological data. It can even smell chemicals in the air, all on a detailed map. The software is sensor and drone agnostic, so it can use any sensor or drone available and can be added relatively quickly.
"When we tell people that we're gonna do what takes hours or even weeks sometimes to do in real time, the initial reaction is, 'Bulls—,'" Audronis said, laughing. "But we show that we can do it. We already have an MVP [minimal viable product, which validates the product and is used to attract early adopters], we're getting ready to hire developers for our Phase II and we even have memoranda of understanding from two different Air Force commands. The MVP doesn't even have all the bells and whistles that the final product will have.”
"Nothing has to be built. If you have the infrastructure, the sensors, the drone, all you have to do is install the software," he said.
Audronis grew up wanting to be an F-14 Tomcat pilot, so he joined the Navy as a non-designated airman with the hope of becoming an officer. After a flight-deck incident early in his career left him injured, his flying dream was crushed, and he had to leave the Navy. He pursued his second dream, working in Hollywood.
He studied computer animation, learning about visual effects and 3D animation. He couldn't have imagined how flying and animation would come together in his life. He began working for the Discovery Channel and the California Academy of Sciences, where he was an early pioneer of a new technology: drones.
"I had my drone sitting on my desk one day and the director of our show, 'I (Almost) Got Away With It' on Investigation Discovery, saw it sitting on my desk with a camera strapped to it," Audronis recalls. "We took it out to Treasure Island, where Discovery shoots all those shows, and boom, I became one of the first guys flying drones for Hollywood."
Audronis still tears up when thinking about the devastation his hometown experienced in the Camp Fire. Audronis believes current fire detection methods in use are "rooted in medieval times."
"They've got towers on hills, hundreds of miles apart with binoculars," he says. "There's actually a guy that's manning one of these towers that has a TikTok account -- keep in mind, this isn't a trained firefighter; this is a college student doing a summer job -- when he spots something, he circles it on a window. He's not even marking it on a map. If he decides to report it, he faxes in a form. Who sees that?"
His company's mission is to use real-time information to prevent problems before they become unmanageable. The more he develops it for widespread use, the potential applications only grow. The software has uses on farms, oil rigs, peacekeeping missions, disaster recovery and response, and even detecting deficiencies on spacecraft before launch.
"During Hurricane Harvey, I was on a team of eight drone pilots, and we did a lot of mapping for the National Guard," he says. "And that was also one of the motivations behind Tempest Droneworx. We were able to generate 500 acres of maps every three or four hours, which is insanely fast, but it's nowhere near real time. After that I was like, you know, I wish I could see better data."
He did. So far, his work has generated 11 patents and has garnered interest from the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Authority and the state of Texas, but that's not enough.
"That's one of my driving factors," Audronis says. "How many people have died in fires? How many people have died in hurricanes or military actions that we could have prevented? No matter how fast we move, it's never gonna be fast enough. I want the software to get out there. I don't want anybody else to go through what my hometown did."
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