This Diversity-Driven Startup Is Building Drones To Stop Gun Violence
Seasoned software architect, Leah LaSalla, is “grossed out” by “vertical hierarchies.”
That’s why when she founded Astral AR, a drone piloting system that allows pilots to identify and stop loaded firearms, she decided to address systemic inequality by making sure everyone on her 11-person team is paid the same amount.
This is just one of the many diversity-driven facets she and Astral AR cofounder and CIO José La Placa Amigò have instilled in the company, which strives to be what they refer to as “proactively progressive.”
It’s Cultural and personal
“José, a man of color, has been solicited to stop bullets,” said LaSalla. “This is quite a personal business. Eighty percent of our team are women and people of color, and some of us are veterans and disabled individuals, so this is very personal for all of us.”
With with offices in Austin, Texas, and Chicago, the ages of the Astral AR team members range from early 30s to early 60s.
“The reason we’re paying everyone the same salary is that it eliminates the question of discrimination,” said LaSalla. “It doesn’t matter how much you used to get paid. We’re not even going to ask. If you need to make more money than anyone else here then you’re probably not a culture fit.”
La Placa Amigò says he and LaSalla regard this policy as a base-level standard. “The way we see it, all we’re doing is the least any decent human being should do for anybody else,” he said. “We don’t see it as a big deal.”
Astral AR launched in the summer of 2015, after LaSalla—who’s been a software developer for 15 years and able to program 11 different languages—poached La Placa Amigò, while he was running a coffee shop.
Here’s my Q&A with LaSalla:
Melissa Jun Rowley: How did you and José come together to build Astral AR?
LaSalla: When I founded Astral AR I was the CTO. That changed when my original cofounders went different ways.
José and I met about 10 years ago when I was about to run a tabletop role-playing game. It had nothing to do with tech. Nothing to do with drones. When I found out he has a technical background from when he was in the military, it accelerated my determination to poach him. José can trace fiber optic cables while getting shot at, and he’s the only member of the air force I know who’s been shot.
We have quite a few veterans working with us, and all of them agree it’s therapeutic to be working on this particular technology because it’s designed to stop bullets.
Rowley: Let’s get into the tech. What are the drones’ main function?
LaSalla: Our piloting system allows you to fly the drone with your mind in augmented reality. So you think ‘bank left,’ and the drone banks left. And you see all of this from the drone’s perspective in holographic 3D, in an AR vizor.
I came up with the original idea when a friend of mine sent me a link to an AR visor, and said “come up with an excuse to use these.”
The drones that we’re developing will allow law enforcement to do things like detect guns and bombs through walls.
Rowley: How do the drone stop bullets?
LaSalla: The drones are armored. The armor that we have sourced was developed by a researcher at the University of North Carolina. It’s a super material that pulverizes bullets on impact—a kind of a metallic foam.
Rowley: In addition to law enforcement, who are your customers?
LaSalla: We’ve also been solicited to do aerial security for the new Warriors stadium that’s being built in San Francisco.
Our drones can also do things like detect heartbeats and breathing through brick walls. So we can find people who are trapped in places. Our alpha stage technology was also solicited by recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey and Irma.
Rowley: Tell me more about the AR aspect. How does it enhance your product?
LaSalla: What if a police officer knew in advance that there were no firearms present somewhere? What if he knew exactly what he was getting into before he got out of his car? He’d know there’d be no possibility for things to escalate into a life-threatening situation, so that would influence his decision-making paradigm.
That’s where the AR component factors in. You have to have an interface to demonstrate situational awareness. That’s what the AR is for from a law enforcement perspective.
Yes, [the drones] can be piloted manually. But the autonomous capability provides functionality that human reflexes can’t.
We’re still testing, and we have uniformed police officers who are helping us gather data. If you have to shoot at something, you don’t just get to determine that it works. It’s expeditious to involve the cops. Just have the cops do it for you.
Rowley: What else do you do to be a ‘proactively progressive’ company?
LaSalla: We have this thing that we call transition support for people who are trans.
One day I woke up and realized that an employer is an extremely powerful position to be in and drive what needs to happen in society.
Transition support is in our company handbook between smoking, cessation and tuition reimbursement. The point is that situations are only awkward if we make them awkward. If we treat something as normal, it’s normal.
In the case of people who are trans, if someone joins our team and they have a medical situation, and a change needs to be made across the organizational consciousness to bring all the teammates up to speed, as the employer what we can do is help facilitate everyone adjusting to that change. We can do this through something like a lunch and learn.
For people who need to make name changes, we’ll maintain their legacy information and their anticipated information. These are tiny changes. It costs the organization essentially nothing to do this. For people that we hire to know that something like transition support exists is powerful.
This is one of the policies we hope other organizations see and imitate, and it’s already happening. Other much larger companies than us have sought us out to find out how we approach this.
Astral AR will be exhibiting at CES in Las Vegas, NV, Jan. 9-12.
Posted with permission of Forbes Media LLC
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