At first glance, the lean, tall, bespectacled Indian boy could pass off for any regular 15-year-old who does things most teenagers do when not attending school – play cricket, hang out with friends, watch movies... But Harshwardhansinh Zala is unlike them all.
Not for him is cricket or movies or even friends his own age. In fact he doesn’t even go to school (more about that later).
Although not old enough to possess a driver’s licence, this boy is already riding high thanks to a technological marvel he developed: A hi-tech award-winning drone that can detect and destroy landmines.
In Dubai on a brief vacation from his hometown of Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the smartly attired, well-groomed Harshwardhansinh, Harsh as he is fondly called, has an engaging personality. Soft spoken and with impeccable manners – he holds the door open for his assistant, a young woman, to enter the room before stepping in – the teenager exudes a firm sense of confidence and optimism when we meet for the interview.
‘Have you visited any malls, theme parks, gone on desert safaris?’ I ask him, attempting to break the ice.
‘I plan to do some sightseeing later,’ he says. ‘More importantly, I want to use my time here to scout for investors who are keen to partner in my project.’
The project is one that has the potential to save lives of millions of people. At an age when most kids his age would be busy playing games on their devices, Harsh is dabbling with cutting-edge technology to create a world that is safe, particularly for defence personnel on the battle front. The award-winning inventor’s drone can not only detect but also defuse landmines without any human intervention at close quarters. What makes his invention all the more relevant and noteworthy is that the Indian army and India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – the country’s largest central armed police force and one of the world’s largest paramilitary forces – has shown interest in the device after he made a presentation to the senior brass in Ahmedabad, a couple of years ago. That’s not all. The South Korean government too has evinced interest in Harsh’s drone, and invited him to Seoul two years ago to learn more about the device.
‘Do you know that there are more than 100 million active landmines across the world?’ asks the boy. ‘I’m hoping that my technological solution can help save thousands of lives across the world.’
A highlight of this drone is that it can be operated remotely from as far away as 100km. ‘Defence personnel sitting in an air-conditioned office far away from a minefield can safely monitor and defuse a mine without any risk to human limb or life,’ he says.
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Not resting on his laurels, he is keen to develop it further. ‘We are working on increasing the range to 120km,’ he adds. By ‘we’ he means some 200 volunteers and a 11-member staff of the company he set up – Aerobotics7 Tech Solutions – of which he is the CEO, an acronym that in his case stands for chief everything officer.
A resident of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, home state of the Indian prime minister, Harsh is the only child of his parents, and was barely 10 years old when he began exhibiting his brilliance finding tech solutions to common household chores. One of his early creations was a gadget that could be used as a remote control for a number of home appliances including the television, music system and kitchen devices.
If his father, Pradhyumansinh, an accountant in a plastics company, was pleased that he could use a single remote to control the music system and the TV, his mother, a homemaker, was overjoyed that she could remotely operate kitchen appliances without having to budge from her comfy sofa in the hall.
To add to her joy, Harsh developed a gadget that also helped her around the house. ‘I made a robot that could clean floors and also perform tasks like carrying crockery from the dining room to the kitchen sink and serve food at the table. My mum loved this invention of mine,’ he says, looking down and smiling shyly.
Chuffed by the devices Harsh invented, his parents began encouraging him, offering all support to help him develop his talent. ‘Mine is a middle class family and we could not afford a lot of things. But my parents supported me as best as they could to help me further my knowledge about the subject and create more projects,’ he says.
A major stumbling block, though, was access to information. The state government school he attended did not have books on advanced electronics and robotics – two subjects Harsh is passionate about. ‘That was frustrating. So, I began visiting local libraries,’ he says. Within a few months he’d exhausted all the books there.
Much as he wanted a computer so he could go online to learn more about his subjects, he knew his family could not afford it. ‘So I decided to visit the local internet café where I could download and study research papers and books on the subjects,’ he says.
However, there was a problem: Since he was not even a teenager at the time, the café owner refused to allow him access to the net unless he was accompanied by an adult.
Luckily for him, his grandfather offered to chaperone him to the café every day, sitting by his side while Harsh downloaded notes and papers on robotics.
That helped. By the time he turned 12, Harsh had created 42 gadgets, including a device to check and monitor water levels in overhead tanks remotely, eight robots and three drones. ‘My devices could do a lot of people’s daily chores,’ says the teenage prodigy.
But the invention that would take him to the top of the tech and gadget foodchain and earn him national and international acclaim happened after he saw a YouTube video of soldiers sustaining injuries, some of them fatal, after inadvertently stepping on mines or driving over them.
‘The video shook me up,’ he says, his eyes growing wide behind his spectacles. ‘I was shocked and saddened to see soldiers getting injured and even losing their lives because of landmines. I knew there had to be a technological solution to the problem – to prevent these disasters from happening and thus save soldiers’ lives and limbs.’
Deciding to take a few years’ education sabbatical – ‘anyway, there was little I was learning about new things at school’ – Harsh began studying about landmines in detail. ‘A third of my day I’d spend in internet cafes researching mine detectors and its technology. I found that even the most sophisticated mine detectors required some sort of human intervention at close quarters,’ he says.
He also found that while existing detectors were extremely expensive, none could detect all types of mines. Harsh, who was 13 at the time, decided to take up the challenge. ‘I began designing a drone that can detect mines in real time without any risk to humans.’
The going was by no means easy; the first hurdle he encountered was financial. ‘Being a middle class family, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my start-up project. So I decided to earn some money by taking tuitions for BTech and MTech students,’ says Harsh, whose peer group was in grade eight at the time. ‘I offered them classes in advanced technologies and electronics and assisted them with their projects. The money I earned I plugged into the project.’
Did his school help him in any way?
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘It had few facilities to pursue projects in advanced electronics and robotics. But a philanthropist supported me at a very nano scale, which was a big help initially,’ says the inventor, who has delivered several TED talks on robotics.
After a year’s painstaking work – ‘I spent a lot of time sourcing parts including a few complex components from overseas’ – Harsh created a prototype that could detect landmines. He then approached around 12 firms hoping they would underwrite the project so he could develop it further. ‘But they all rejected it,’ he says.
Refusing to give up, Harsh decided to set up his own company. Utilising funds that his parents gave him and savings he had from giving tuitions, he recruited 11 staff and began fine-tuning his drone, testing it over a 100 times until he was convinced it was ready to be presented in public.
Made of carbon fibre and equipped with infrared and RGB sensors, the battery-operated device can fly non-stop for close to an hour. It also has a thermal gauge and a 21 megapixel camera that can take high-res pictures of the terrain and transmit them to the base station.
At the 2017 Vibrant Gujarat event – a state government platform for brainstorming on agendas of global socio-economic development – Harsh presented the first version of his drone and it instantly grabbed the limelight. Experts who tested the device were pleased with its results and Harsh’s popularity soared.
The icing on the cake was when a couple of months later he received a call from the CRPF office in Delhi. ‘Initially, I thought it was a prank. But it was an invitation from the director general of the CRPF asking me to showcase the drone to the team. I was absolutely excited.
‘The next day, my heart was pounding when I saw a van full of military personnel drive up to my house. Meeting the army officers and presenting my drone to them was a great moment for me; a huge achievement,’ he says, eyes twinkling.
‘We showcased it to some senior officers in the Indian army [as well] and from their responses it was clear that the drone was more than what they had expected. They said they’d never seen anything like it. The fact that landmines can be detected without human intervention was something they said was incredible. For us it was a happy moment because we realised we were on the right track.’
Elated, he continues to develop it further. ‘I want to extend its remote function capability to 120km from the present 100km,’ he says.
Last year, Harsh presented the improved version – Eagle A7 (short for Escort for Attacking on Ground and buried Landmines as Enemy) – at Ahmedabad’s International Centre for Technology and Entrepreneurship, an expo on scientific developments. Pre-launched by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, the drone that weighs 8kg – but could go up to 16kg depending on the payload – flies two feet above the surface, emits waves that can detect landmines and communicates their location to a base station far away. It can drop an indicator on the mine spot so the army can detonate it with the help of a wireless detonator.
‘Mr Modi shook my hand and congratulated me,’ says the boy with pride.
How much did the total project cost?
‘To date, we’ve invested around Rs5 million [about Dh259,250] on the drone,’ he says. His parents chipped in a bit and a few philanthropists sponsored some equipment, while Harsh took a bank loan to realise his dream. ‘To repay the loan, I gave tuition classes for undergraduate and postgraduate students. My company also developed a few commercial tech products that earned us some money, which I plugged into the drone project.
‘Now, I am looking for venture capitalists or angel investors who can invest around $1 million so I can make this drone even better.’
Apart from the defence sector, Harsh sees plenty of potential for commercial applications for his drone. ‘It can be used in areas such as fire safety, surveillance, agriculture, medical field, courier services…,’ he says. His company is also working in the field of robotics process automation and artificial intelligence. ‘I’m working on mind-controlled robots; gadgets that work by processing thought waves – the alpha and beta patterns of the [brain’s] wavelengths.’
Harsh’s brain might be firing on all cylinders 24/7, but does he miss going to regular school, I ask.
‘I’ve completed grade 10 and am doing postgraduate studies after which I plan to enrol either at MIT or Stanford for my doctorate. I have already received admission confirmations from a few leading universities in the West,’ he says, nonchalantly. ‘My idea is to set up a lab near the university so I can study and work simultaneously.’
A follower of the teachings of former Indian president the late Dr Abdul Kalam, Harsh also looks up to His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. ‘His vision and foresight plus the fact that he developed this country so fast and so well is just amazing,’ says the youngster. ‘I also admire Narendra Modi, not as a politician but for the fact that he rose from a tea seller to being the prime minister.’
Does he have a lot of friends?
‘No,’ says Harsh. ‘I don’t have any friends my age. All my friends are over 30 and related to the AI or robotics field.’
Silicon Valley visit
Harsh, who says he’s inspired by Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, recently toured Silicon Valley in the US, visiting the offices of Facebook and Google. ‘I enjoyed my time there because the guys there were aware of the kind of technology I was talking about and were appreciative of my work. I liked their work structure and open environment of working, which fosters creativity.
‘No one appeared to be stressed out when working on projects but were relaxed and calm at work – something I do not see often in India. That was a big learning curve for me.’
He has incorporated several of those lessons into his company. ‘We have regular brainstorming sessions in my company and we work together to find solutions to challenges by making a clear route plan or map and helping each other when stuck at any point,’ says Harsh, who enjoys watching cartoon films, creating music or watching documentaries during his downtime.
What other projects are you working on, I ask the little inventor.
‘Several of our projects are confidential; it’s in stealth mode,’ he says, with a smile. ‘But very soon we will release a few of them to the public. Some of it is related to defence, some B2B.’
Does he have a dream project in mind?
The young man looks down at his hands for a while. ‘The drone is really my dream project. I am focusing on this and want to commercialise its use. I want to see a world without landmines.
‘I am currently working with the Indian Army and CRPF to help clear landmines in India. Once that is accomplished, I will share my technology with the rest of the world.’
Harshwardhansinh’s association with Dubai-based Nileshkumar Nagarsheth began two years ago. ‘We met in India,’ says Harsh. ‘Nilesh is our adviser in the Mena regions for our international businesses.’ Nilesh, a telecom, AI, IT and ICT expert, is pleased with the association. ‘I’m totally impressed by this young man’s innovations. I’ve also been an innovator and have developed gadgets related to power management,’ he says. ‘Apart from drones, we are planning to do a lot of work in IOT and virtual reality. Harsh can be a game changer in just a few years without doubt. I am using my 25-plus years of experience in the telecom sector and leveraging the knowledge and experience of having done business with partners across the globe to ensure Harsh gets the kind of exposure he deserves.’