LAU students win first place at the national Microsoft Imagine Cup
Engineering students Nicolas Zaatar and Charlie El-Khoury develop award-winning flying robot firefighter
When hungry flames nearly eradicated Betchay Forest in Baabda, LAU engineering student Nicolas Zaatar answered a call to action and assisted overwhelmed firefighters in preventing the inferno from spreading. The difficulty of the task inspired him to work on developing a more effective way of monitoring the spread of fires. Zaatar and classmate Charlie al-Khoury began months of work on the Quadrofighter, a flying robot firefighter that took first place in the national Microsoft Imagine Cup on April 29.
The Quadrofighter flies autonomously along preprogrammed routes and is capable of detecting fires from a cruising altitude of 100 m. It then relays the fire’s exact coordinates to the appropriate authorities (including firefighters and NGOs) before landing. To ensure that the authorities react to the news of a fire as quickly as possible, Zaatar and al-Khoury designed a mobile app with a loud alarm, so that even in their off-duty hours firefighters are alerted in the case of a conflagration.
“The thing about Lebanon is that maybe they’re not that frequent but when there are forest fires they are very catastrophic because they’re not directly dealt with and there is not really advanced technology in this domain,” says al-Khoury. To compensate for the lack of local technology, the two engineering students imported equipment from outside of Lebanon that they then reconfigured to construct the flying robot.
The project was initially developed during the students’ engineering Capstone Design Project and was later entered into the Microsoft Imagine Cup, regarded as the world’s most prestigious student technology competition. Associate Professor Zahi Nakad, who heads the Capstone Design Project, says that the Zaatar and al-Khoury partnership was one of the best teams he had ever worked with. “They were highly motivated, they really put in some effort and they don’t give up,” says Nakad.
During the competition, Zaatar and El-Khoury faced off against 15 teams from across Lebanon and found themselves in a tie for first before judges decided on the winner. “It was a challenging task for me and it was very beneficial. We got a lot of feedback from the judges and we’re working with them now to improve the product in general,” al-Khoury says.
After the Quadrofighter’s success at the national level, the students must now prepare to represent Lebanon at the regional Imagine Cup in Bahrain. Competition is expected to be stiff with 13 contestants from Arab countries hoping to grab first place and the $10,000 prize on May 31. The final, global championship will take place in the United States and offers $50,000 as the first prize along with the chance to meet Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Zaatar and al-Khoury fully intend to win and are upgrading their design. “We’re improving our prototype. Now we’ve designed a mobile application; it will notify the firefighters on their mobiles,” says Zaatar. “We’re going to continue no matter what the result is.”