Mar 8, 2015, 02.51AM IST
A couple of years ago, I pulled my teenage daughter out of dance classes she absolutely loved –because I wasn't sure of her personal safety. The lengthening evening shadows, dark corridors and empty spaces of the school hired for the purpose gave me as much cause for concern as the lack of any background knowledge about the sullen guards at the gate or even the talented male dancers teaching and managing the franchise. She still hasn't forgiven me. But how could I take a chance?
For those of us who have a young woman in our life – daughter, girlfriend, sister or wife – living in India's urban cities can be fraught with either a high level of daily panic or low-level state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance each time they step out of the security of their homes.
Fortunately, the safety of women has now become an issue that elections are fought over, although sadly, it took a Nirbhaya and other rapes like the one in the Uber taxi to bring this to the top line of priorities. But the question is - is there anything that we, as individuals, can do to help ourselves and our loved ones in a situation where the state seems to have failed?
According to five engineers from New Delhi, yes there is and yes, we can. These five young men – they call themselves the 5 Pandavas – have come up with an ingenious solution to this problem using the concept of crowdprotection. They have innovated to build a personal emergency response system called Guardian that uses a tap-activated wearable device to trigger an alarm when the wearer is in distress through a mobile app to its community of “guardians,” who form a virtual control room which can swing into action to protect the wearer at her time of need. This system can also send information to the police control room which can then redirect it to the closest police station or mobile police van for quick action.
“You just have to tap the Guardian to activate the alarm. It connects to your smartphone via a low-energy bluetooth connection. The downloaded Guardian app connects you to your security community,” says Ayush Banka, head of R&D, who worked as an intern in embedded systems products and is one of the five co-founders of Leaf Innovation, makers of this device. The others are Manik Mehta, Avinash Bansal, Paras Batra and Chiraag Kapil. Whats also cool about this device are the funky designs being planned – it can be worn as a ring, a bracelet, a clip-on, a necklace or any fashion accessory - as these young innovators work on reducing the size of the electronic component so that the device can adapt to newer and more elegant design elements. Setting it up is as simple as downloading the app to your smarphone, appointing guardians from the phone's address book and pairing the electronic safety device with the app, so that the user can trigger distress calls at the tap of a button. The five, who haven't yet graduated from engineering school, have already won several prizes in the short time that their startup has been in existence, and enough funding to keep going. They recently gave away 4% of their equity for Rs 10 lakh in a competition organised by the entrepreneurship cell of IIT-Bombay, were the national winners of the Phillips Blueprint 2014 competition, won a prize in Dubai's Gitex Student Lab Competition, and most recently, were runners up at the TiE's 2015 international business plan competition.
“There is no one else in India who is doing what we are with this much attention to detail,” says Chiraag Kapil, who heads design and strategy.
Asked what differentiates his product from other smart jewellery focussed on personal safety, such as Cuff, Safelet, Warybee, FirstSign, Sense6 and SpotNSave (which is already available in the market), Kapil says the Guardian will be priced much lower than the others. “Apart from price differentiation, we have technology differentiators too. We have live-tracking on all the networks, which the others don't have. Our device will also work with multiple other apps and be supported on all platforms,” he added. But what the real differentiator will be is the following: In a futuristic, sci-fi type scenario, the team is trying to devise sensors that will involuntarily sense when the wearer is in danger and automatically send signals, along with the wearer's location, to all those she has appointed as guardians - family, friends as well as others in the immediate local community who also have that app downloaded.
“It can be done. We're working on it,” says Kapil, explaining how a bracelet placed strategically over a pulse point will record abnormally faster heartbeat which results from sensing danger in the flight or fight mode and recording physical signs of stress and anxiety caused by fear. Leaf has on its advisory board Dr Aniruddh Malpani, an angel investor and doctor who has committed to help in this area, says Kapil.
“Another upgrade the product plans to incorporate after the initial launch is that the accessory will record live audio and video feeds in a few months,” says Paras Batra, who heads marketing and is the only civil engineer among the four electronic engineers. “In a matter of seconds, through our GPS-GSM-wifi triangulation, the system can forward the location of the wearer to their family, the police, a rapid action team, NGOs, volunteers and our mobile application users in the proximity of the woman in distress,” says Kapil, explaining that they also plan to rope in security agencies into this plan of crowdsourcing safety. He has already made a presentation to the Delhi chief minister's office and got an acknowledgement from them. “They have forwarded it to the respective authorities,” says Kapil.
The team has priced the product at Rs 2499 for direct online sales and will initially distribute free to companies, bringing in revenues in with a nominal monthly subscription. “We plan to reach out to call centers, hospitals, banks, BPOs and every sort of field where women are employed often require late night travel,” says Mehta, head finance and strategy. Beta testing has begun and the fine tuned product will be launched in April 2015. The team expects to gather a customer base of one lakh users within two years.