By Symeon Oshea

As a teenager in India, Harshwardhan Zala developed technology that can find and diffuse landmines. From Mission’s UN Issue.

At just the age of nine back in India, 20-year old Harshswardhan Zala found himself fascinated by everything he took an interest in. He would reimagine anything that he saw that was related to electronics and technology. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to do something extraordinary within a very specialized area of technology, he began to place an emphasis on how we can address solutions to social issues with technology. 

A year later (at 10 years old) he began tinkering with his family’s home appliances in an effort to control them with an infrared receiver. He distinctly recalls it getting pretty hot during the summer, wondering how he could turn off the fan without getting up to do so. After working on the project for nearly five months, Zala had finally solved his first real world issue with tech. 

Fast forward to July 2015, Zala came across a video demonstration where the military advised on detection of landmines. Suddenly one landmine exploded and though it was just a demonstrative video, it triggered the young inventor. Shocked, he began to research more and more about the issue. He wanted to know why this happens, how these weapons work, and what exactly can be done to put a stop to the harm these mines can create. During his research, he found that there were millions of landmines that are still buried, and millions more that are still in stockpiles waiting to be deployed. The process of disarming and removing these weapons can be very slow, while also being a huge risk to people around the world.

Seeing how devastating the impact of landmines can have on citizens around the world, Zala decided that he would do something about this. In 2016, he founded Aerobotics7, developing drones that detect landmines; the drone retracts into itself, detects these landmines, eliminates them as threats, and tracks them in real-time without any human risks. Zala has always felt that when you believe in a vision enough, you do what is necessary to see it make change in this world. His belief remains firm that nothing can stop you from doing what you are truly passionate about.

When first pursuing his interest in tech, Zala had never thought of figuring out a particular segment to explore; he noticed everyone else hurrying to specialize early on. His passion for change, however, came solely from being a generalist. Seeing problems around him all of the time in India, encouraged him to do all that he can to move this project forward. Though he is aware of “big tech” and corporations where you make millions of dollars a year, what really matters to Zala is if he is truly contributing to his passion. “Are you truly happy in what you’re doing, and are you creating enough change in the world?” he questions. That is what really matters, rather than fielding different offers or working with large corporations. All of those things feel very focused on the short-term, when the primary motive is over a long mission. Demining is only the first issue that his team at Aerobotics7 is tackling. “There are many other related problems in this world that we will be trying to solve, one after another,” he says. 

Zala started Aerobotics7 with just one employee—himself. With only a small idea and a big vision of wanting to solve a problem that affects people daily, he set out to do just that. When he was just 12, Zala would teach exchange students about technology to generate some additional income to fund the business. He figured that he knew most of the technological related concepts and one day, a neighbor of his ran into a problem attempting to finish his final project at the time. He came over and told his neighbor that he was able to solve his problem. At first, his neighbor laughed, but then once Zala began to describe the solution to his exact problem, the neighbor was so impressed that he invited all of his peers over. Shortly after, all of them became students of Zala.   

Some of those same students decided to join Aerobotics7, and they have become somewhat of a family who, together, all share the same vision. “No matter what happens, we want to solve this problem,” he explains. “There are many people who come and go because of financial gains or just focusing on other things. But that was not always the case for us when we founded this company. For me it was all about how we can solve some of the biggest problems in this world. I have met some really amazing people who believed in the vision and shared the same passion as well.”  

As we all have come to know, technological development comes with its own set of challenges to overcome. Every single day you are learning through trial and error. Zala recognized these challenges and they simply became a part of his routine. In his personal life, though, there was an uphill battle. “When I was young, and even as of today, it has been a little tough for me. When you’re young and you’re starting up, people don’t really trust you. So trusting and believing in something huge with a young kid pursuing it, was not really accepted by the Indian people or government.” That became a hurdle, having to go above and beyond to prove that what he created was working. There are also plenty of times when he experiences direct opposition to his ideas and social venture for change. “When you want to do something good, certain people will not really like it. Not everyone will want change.” 

Through professional self-development, Zala attributes much of his success to forming beneficial habits. For him, it is remaining focused and never allowing himself to be hesitant. At first, he thought that he would create the technology and then hand it over to some corporation and they would, in turn, do good for the cause. But that is not always the case. “I have learned that I can only believe in myself to achieve what I set out to achieve. I started learning how the entire corporate system works. How, through my own company, am I able to execute this.” Another habit, he says, has been to learn new things, but not just anything that

you come across. If you don’t focus that curiosity into intentional areas where you want to achieve something, you may end up in the opposite direction of reaching your original goal.

The World Without Landmines (WWL) movement is fairly simple – “I stated earlier, about the demonstration video that started it all, but I had to ask myself, what should we do next and what is going on with the world right now? How can we boost that in such a way through technology?” The primary mission for the young inventor lies within wanting to see a world free from landmines, where there are none of these mine-related threats. The campaign is a collaboration with PeaceJam, who has been working with Nobel Peace Prize laureates for more than 25 years now. They are assisting in guiding the movement on creating coalitions, working with different organizations, and how to focus on putting their tech at the forefront by prioritizing how they can get their technology to the people and the organizations that need it most. 

“The primary question is, how can we shorten the timeline of clearing all the landmines around the world? The current pace is slow and steady, but there are many risks involved within these deactivations if we fail to continue innovation. Many other organizations also feel that without innovation in this it would take normally not years, but decades, to clear these landmines.” 

“I used to get a lot of ideas about solving this and that, and we see that there are thousands of problems around where we live [and] around the world. Many people are suffering, but I have always tried to not divert my focus from this project.” The level of this project is so big that Zala believes it will require his attention for the foreseeable future. There is so much left unexplored within development and understanding of the problems we currently face that come from this root issue. Primarily, the young inventor would like to focus on what operational parameters are to be understood and how we are able to begin solving some of these smaller issues within this larger problem.

Images courtesy of Sam Panthaky

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