Drones can stop school shooters, inventor says. Students work to prove it

Published April 27 2018
Updated April 27 2018

TAMPA — When the military put out the call for help disarming bombs left by a retreating Islamic State, a Sarasota inventor developed and delivered a drone that paired heavy lifting with artificial intelligence.

Another idea came to the inventor, Skip Parish, when he learned about the 17 people gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

"There has to be a better way to protect students than having a gun on a gun," said Parish, who has worked with militaries and companies around the world on drone technology.

He reached out for help from Manatee Technical College in Bradenton, a school with a reputation for innovation. If he brought his technology to the school, could the students there apply their advanced tools and skills to create a quick and safe way of detecting, identifying and disrupting a potential shooter?

The goal: produce a small drone to fly inside a building that can receive alerts through a special software and approach a subject instantly.

The software uses artificial intelligence to identify images like a gun. Facial recognition software could be added to identify a potential shooter. It can even be outfitted with speakers to distract a shooter.

The drone would be placed in a central location, affording it a wide field of vision. It would instantly alert authorities to potential trouble so they could launch and control the device.

The concept received an enthusiastic reception from Gil Burlew, the school’s advanced manufacturing and production instructor. The way events unfolded in Parkland, Burlew said, with confusion about who or where the shooter was, reveals problems with the current approach to active shooters.

"I don’t believe the answer to anything is more guns in schools," Burlew said. "I’m a big guy, 6’3’’, 250 pounds. But after 40 years of teaching, I can’t imagine giving teachers a gun. Why? That teacher will never be the same if he had to use the weapon. And what the students would see is not something they would ever forget."

A few months back, Parish attended the school’s advisory council meeting and was invited for a closer look at Burlew’s instructional program.

"Our students are pretty high-tech," Burlew said, with students from both high school and college. "Skip came in, saw drones in my classroom, and started putting two and two together. He said he was working on things for the military and there was no reason why we can’t be doing some of those things here."

Manatee County school officials liked the idea, as well.

"One of the key focuses of our engineering and technology programs is to use emerging technology to solve real world problems," said Doug Wagner, executive director of adult, career and technical education for the Manatee County School District.

The drone project is in its early stages. The goal, said school district spokesman Mike Barber, is to plan, design, create, and build a product that can be manufactured commercially. Students, he said, have been studying the physics of force, lift, and payload.

The program has purchased two DJI brand drones for practice and instruction, Barber said. Students are working on their prototype with Parish and the video piloting company Lumenier.

The project is pushing the edge in a number of ways.

A student in the program already has been promised a job with Lumenier after graduation, Barber said.

And a demonstration set up to illustrate this story proved real enough to cause concern in the Manatee school district, where seven students have been arrested recently for making threats to schools.

A student carried a toy rifle through a hallway at Manatee Technical College on Thursday as a drone flew nearby and camera shutters clicked.

"In light of our experiences," Barber said, "in the wake of Parkland, to have video and photos of a person who looks like a student, going though school with what looks to be a real AR-15, really gives us scary concerns."

The drone project, with an estimated budget of about $5,000, has ambitious goals and students aim to have something to show before the end of the school year in June.

"By engaging in this project," Wagner said, "our students hope to make a contribution to school safety, not only here but across the country."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.