Drones that Stop Bullets: Leah La Salla Wants to Improve Policing

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome back to the second installment of our newest blog series: the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Leah La Salla is a self-taught, polyglot software architect of Sicilian-Irish origins.  She spent much of her free time during her high school years working in her aviation engineer dad’s super-precision tool-and-die machine shop. La Salla got started in tech long before there were any initiatives trying to bring women into development– and did so as a single mother on the autism spectrum.  After studying CAD design in college, she spent a decade in software engineering– including five years as a Federal employee– during which she taught herself to program in an additional 9 languages. Since then she’s mentored over a hundred in women in coding via the Ada Academy, and is listed in the top 10% of Stack Overflow. La Salla founded Astral AR in 2015, an aerial robotics company focused on lifesaving-edge tech along with social impact, and where she leads as Technical Founder & CEO. As the inventor of toaster-sized neuromechanical drones for ubiased public safety,  she hacked NASA with a toaster– and her social media handle is @OpenSorceress.

In your own words, can you describe what your job is?

My title is assistant janitor. No, just kidding, my job is just that I work here at Astral AR, and my official title is CEO. We at Astral AR build drones that stop bullets. That’s what my job is– I build drones that stop bullets. We can see guns and bombs through walls. We work primarily with uniformed police officers to do identification of solid objects. We identified this functionality with a crisis like Sandy Hook in mind– where the drone can detect the gun through the walls of a school– or wherever else– and stop the bullets. Our main goal is to stop people from dying in shootings. For example, we could have stopped the Vegas shooting with this technology. If we had been at the casino, we would have seen him bring the guns in and have stopped it before it started. If we had been at the festival, we could have certainly helped things, but the drone do get confused if there are a lot of bullets.

So it’s not really like a battlefield technology.

No! We actually have a very extensive “no list” on our website for things that we cannot do. We cannot make a drone that can stop bullets in wars, it’s just too much for it to handle. We’re not that good. We’ve also been asked before to weaponize it– like to put pepper spray or something else on the drone– and we just really don’t feel comfortable doing that either. It’s really only about as smart as a really dumb dog; it just gets in your face and stays in your face, and that’s all it’s meant to do, and all that we’ll have it do, other than stop bullets really well. The main point is just to stop, or at least help mitigate the damage, of gun violence. The real problem is that people are getting shot, and that’s what the drones are meant to solve. That’s what matters. The drones are indiscriminate– they can’t tell whether you’re a friend or foe. All they can identify is a hand and a gun, and if they see that, that’s what they’re watching. Mainly, the idea is that police officers would use this drone as a supplement to themselves, and they could have some extra security to be able to stop these sorts of incidents faster than they would otherwise be able to, while saving more lives.

The drones can actually differentiate between real and fake guns, too. Right behind me I actually have a clip of 45s zip-tied to a selfie stick, and I have a bunch of rifle rounds and .22s. We can tell the difference between a fake gun and a real gun, and a loaded gun and a fake gun, and that’s really important from the perspective of a police officer, because they need to be able to know that they’re safe and that the drone is going to protect them. A fake gun isn’t a threat– the drone doesn’t need to use energy monitoring something that’s fake.

What kinds of scenarios other than mass shootings would this technology be useful in?

Really, it’s useful for everyday policing, it just has a special benefit for mass shootings. We’re actually endorsed by Black Lives Matter, because this technology has the potential to eliminate stop and frisk. It can tell police officers whether or not someone has a gun in their pocket, which can eliminate a lot of the fear that police officers have in these scenarios, and also eliminate a lot of the fear that people of color have when interacting with police, because it can create that trust. Nobody wants to get shot– not police officers and not civilians, so if the drone can make both parties feel more confident that that’s not going to happen, then this technology could really make a difference.

What’s your origin story– how did you get involved in this, or in computer science to begin with?

Well, it really all starts with this– “We have to save room for the boys.” That is what they told me when they refused to put me in college algebra as a freshman in high school. I was completely beyond qualified for college Algebra, but they had to save room for the boys, and I feel the consequences of that every single day as a software developer with no formal background because I can’t get into this. I’m not allowed to take these classes. Validating my skillset with a degree doesn’t happen until I program in five languages already.

I have to teach myself everyday, and this is back in the days before there were coding bootcamps and “girl hack” and all that; back in the days before stack overflow… Anyways, when I first started programming I was two. I’m an elder millennial, so I was born into a house with a computer, which is pretty remarkable, but my dad was an engineer. I know I must have been two or so because I was still wearing diapers, and my dad had gotten sick of me asking to load up this game that I wanted to play, so he taught me how to load it up myself on the computer. He put his hands over mine, and had me press the keys that would open up the game. And he created a monster, really, because I never stopped being interested in coding.

I graduated high school when I was 17, and then I went to work for the IRS. I was in collections. So for the next five or six years, I spent everyone’s tax dollars teaching myself how to program more formally. But really, what I learned from that experience other than the coding I taught myself was really just how to manage and deal with a giant monolithic bureaucracy. I learned that all bureaucracies have one thing in common– it’s that they all have magic words, and if you say those magic words, you can sway them.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Probably the most useful lesson that I learned was hacking, specifically sexism– hacking sexism, racism. I get both. But to be able to hack specifically that response or reaction is probably the most useful thing that any of us can learn. I mean, it’s a pendulum. I had to sit down and think about it for a really long time before I could figure out how it is possible that people who have never seen a single line of code I have ever written are somehow instantly convinced that I am this wizard, like I have magic powers or something. Yes, I program in nine languages– actually 13, but whatever– but, I didn’t always. And also when you program, like, when you’re, when you were that broad, it’s really hard to be deep.

So how are these people convinced that I am some sort of a wizard? They’ve never seen anything I’ve ever done. They’ve never spoken to any coworkers; anybody I’ve ever worked with. None of my students and my bosses, they have absolutely me doing me. Apparently I am somehow this compelling? No, no. What’s happening here is that I have so profoundly defied every expectation of theirs, and that in order to maintain a sense of psychological integrity, they have to just flip the pendulum all the way to the other end. That’s what happens. But, the pendulum will always swing again.

Yeah. It’s always going to end up swinging back, but for a while it’ll be okay. Something else that I’ve discovered is that the pendulum never stops swinging to the person who ends up back in the whole, “Oh, you’re a girl. You don’t know anything.” It’s usually right before they fire you, and then they implode. Well, that’s happened. And then, when you get fired, things blow up because they’ve gotten used to a level of productivity that you were providing, that of course you couldn’t actually be providing, because you’re a girl. And disaster ensues. So, anyways, that’s my biggest lesson– that the pendulum continually swings.

What would you say your advice is, then, to women and especially women of color entering STEM?

I think a lot of women getting out of computer science programs and entering the workforce have heard all of these horror stories of people getting mistreated and the sexism and racism of that industry, and you just want to think, “Oh, well it’s not going to be like that for me.” But that’s not necessarily true– a lot of times, it is like that, and it does suck. But even though it sucks, at least you’re going to get paid like a developer while you do it, and eventually, you can get to a point in your career where you can start to feel comfortable demanding more respect from people. It’s the whole “feet on the desk” thing. Just work hard, do what you know you can do, and it might be really hard, but eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

Also, I always tell women that software is the easiest job. Easiest job, highest margins. People always look at me like I’m crazy when I say, but I know it’s true. Do you know how I know that software is the easiest job? It’s because white men are rushing to join this industry! They hate to do anything hard! If it were that difficult, white men would not be tripping over themselves to get these jobs. And that’s why exactly why women need to get into this.

Why/how did you decide to focus on drone technology?

Okay, so I had just been shoved off the glass cliff. I was made to train the junior dev they hired to replace me, who had absolutely no experience whatsoever in any of the things that we were doing. It took up 100 percent of my time, which meant that I had to spend all the rest of my time at this company doing the things I didn’t do while I was working with this idiot. My cofounder actually did the math because I had front-loaded a substantial amount of income into this company for equity, right. I thought I was walking into this very positioned– like CTO level. …Um, no. My cofounder did the math and I was getting paid exactly fifty eight cents on the white dude who was hired to replace me’s dollar. That’s crazy. I mean, it was uncanny. I found this out like a month afterwards. I was like, wow. The dude himself wasn’t an asshole. He had no idea. He’s literally just some random guy they met and hired.

My originally founders had also gotten fired recently; we got fired within like two weeks of each other. It was super weird. Um, so like you have an idea. Let’s screw off for a minute. Um, yeah. See, I’m a disabled single teenage mother of color– I don’t have any elbow room. I don’t have any wiggle room. There’s no padding whatsoever. I didn’t found this startup because I wanted to, I found it because I had to. In the last 15 years, I’ve not gotten a job within at least six weeks or so of losing the last one, just because somebody somewhere didn’t like me because I’d developed a reputation for being an angry Latina. Nine languages and being a software architect does not beat that– nothing does.

Anyway, one of the original founders had been a dev ops architect for the University of Maryland, that’s actually how we got started with the grant community. She put in a request on a Friday, and then later that day, she’s like, “Oh, hey, I got a couple grand,” and I’m like, “Okay?” She bought hardware and had it shipped straight to me, and there we go. That’s how I ended up with three of the worst AR visors I’ve ever worn. I’d never gotten any until then; most people hadn’t. They were wave one, or I guess series one, and they were not designed for women. I had to like, perch them on the bridge of my nose in a really goofy way, and it was awful. I had to bolt them to my face so tightly that I had bruises. It was terrible, it was obviously designed for the proportions of men’s faces. But it was that or I couldn’t see the holograms, and I had never done any type of cool programming before–I worked on like, e-commerce stuff. There’s really nothing cool about that, but it pays the bills!

I was in this group chat of women, though, and someone was like, “Well, someone should really use these and make something,” and I just so happened to be looking at a page for a parrot AR drone at the very moment. And I was like, “I’ve got an idea.” So then the other co-founder tossed in a link to the Emotiv Insight headset. And then I built the prototype in about six weeks. Well, really, it was more like two days of marathon, overnight Javascripting– since Javascript is the only thing that works on all devices– and then we had a prototype, even though the only thing it could do was turn on and go up. We tested it indoors, and the very first time Jose was charged with catching it, and don’t let it chew up the ceiling. So, clearly it’s come a long way, but that’s how the idea got traction. We had just all gotten fired around the same time, and we all thought this was a cool idea, and we just decided to run with it.

What does testing the drone look like now, then?

It’s actually a really big challenge, because for us to test what we want it to do, and what it’s supposed to do, someone has to be shooting bullets at it, and shooting at a drone is actually a federal offense. People ask to see a live fire demo all the time, like, “I want to see it work!” and it’s like, well, good for you, but that’s a federal offense! How long do you think we’re all going to stay out of jail if we just keep shooting at this thing? Definitely not very long, because it’s not just illegal, it’s severely illegal. We’ve had marketing people like, “We should get a video of you all shooting at it,” and like, no! That can’t happen!

When you test the drone with live fire, someone could actually, seriously get injured or even killed. And that’s another thing– our tech is successful, but it still gets destroyed. The armor is bulletproof only to a point, because there’s just only so many bullets that a material can take. The point is not for the drone to be invincible, and that’s something I think people don’t really understand. The drone is just to stop a shooter for long enough for someone else to intervene, and then its job is done. It’s funny because the drone is actually winning when it’s getting shot, because that means it’s blocking the bullets, but it takes an awful lot of damage.

What’s it like working with police officers on this technology? What is that relationship like?

The cops that we work with actually have their own little startup where they’re teaching other cops to fly drones. They formed the company because they needed a mechanism to be able to do this for police in an official way. So, it’s interesting, and it’s good to see that they’re really invested in this too, and want to work with this technology. It’s always a little scary when they show up in full uniform, gun and all, with the body armor and all that, but it’s great for us to know that law enforcement is interested in working with and helping us develop this technology that could help them do their jobs better.

What do you think has been one of the challenges to you in your career?

Something I think most women, and especially women entrepreneurs really struggle with, is the idea that I am allowed to assume I’m the CEO of a startup. I’m allowed to assume that we’re going to win, and for people to challenge me on that past a certain point is a function of discrimination. It just feels like we constantly have to be proving ourselves, where men just get hired on potential. Women get hired on track record. If we haven’t proven it, we’re not allowed to assume that it will work. That’s something that is expressed upon us selectively. I see it all the time, and people don’t even realize it’s like this, but women have to prove ourselves again and again and again to be taken seriously. Right now, we have partners who insist that we don’t have a product, or we don’t even have a prototype– and it’s like, dude, I have a permanent patent on this! I have a product! In 10 days, I’m going to France to be a U.S. delegate, and in three weeks,In three weeks, I’ll be onstage at IEEE’s Global Humanitarian Technology Conference and the weekend after that speaking at Harvard’s Intercollegiate Business Convention, but I don’t have a product?! It’s unbelievable. It feels like I’m just supposed to assume that I’ll fail because I don’t look the way that men think that I’m supposed to look, and I just have to tell myself that it’s them not me, because it is.

You know, they asked Grace Hopper if she knew a lot about computers when she got started, and she looked at them like they were stupid. She was like, “No, of course I didn’t know anything about computers! Nobody knew anything about computers, because they were brand new! We were just inventing them!” And that’s really the thing about this stuff, too. It’s brand new, and there’s so much gatekeeping and pedigree nonsense that happens, especially to us in my company because we don’t all look like what programmers are supposed to look like. If you haven’t been doing this for years and years and years at the best schools, then you don’t get treated like you’re somebody who gets to do this.

How did you decide that you were good enough, and to stop struggling with internalizing that sort of thing?

It’s like I said with white men stumbling over themselves to get tech jobs– if this was just so difficult that I couldn’t possibly do it, then that wouldn’t be the majority of the tech industry. White men would not be the majority of the tech industry if it were that hard. I also started realizing that I had worked with all these people before who are just, a lot less capable than me and who were completely welcomed into the industry because they fit what people think a programmer should look like. And I kind of realized, “Well, that guy can do it, and he’s an idiot. It can’t be that difficult.” And I believe that it’s not. It gets easier with every passing day for me, just like it could get easier for any woman or woman of color who joined this career. You just have to commit to it. The idea that you have to be pedigreed or have a high degree in whatever you do… Grace Hopper didn’t! And this thing that we’re doing right now, this drone thing, it didn’t exist until we made it do that– and nobody else on earth can do this right now except for us, because we put in the work and we made it happen.

What has the growth of Astral AR looked like, and what has it been like to get funding as one of its founders?

Well, currently, our team is ridiculous. They’re ridiculous and amazing and awesome, and it’s been so great to see it grow from just this idea to an actual full-fledged team. We have 14 engineers, eight attorneys, and one MBA, who’s actually a B.S. Computer Science, so everyone is really invested in this idea and this technology which is amazing to see.

Getting funding is a different monster. I’m a first-time founder, so the fact that I was able to raise capital at all is unto itself. I like to think that other people want us to win, too, because this technology gets people excited that if we invest in this it can someday really be implemented to save lives. A lot of the money that we’ve raised so far has been from other developers– people I’ve worked with, or people I’ve studied with, so on, who know that I’m going to ship the code if it kills me.

How was it working with Arlan Hamilton and Backstage Capital?

Arlan Hamilton was our first VC, and we were an early, backstage investment. I literally chased her around for a year. Generally, we get solicited by investors– it’s not the other way around, but with Arlan, we really wanted to work with her. I chased her around for a year because I knew that Astral AR needed to be in her portfolio, because of what we are and what we do. But first, I had to learn how to pitch an investor. It was the first thing she told me, and that was back when we were still using the term “neuromechanical holoportation.” Yeah, I have to say, saying that we build drones that stop bullets is a lot catchier. She had no idea what we did, and she had no idea what we did for a while– but she did notice that whatever it was, other developers were ponying up, and that it was clearly a compelling idea.

Really, I just had no idea what I was doing, and I got cut some really bad deals because of that because I didn’t know what was appropriate to ask for, or what sum of money we should have been receiving. I just didn’t have access to those circles to ask those sorts of questions and learn how to handle funding before Arlan. And I don’t blame the investors for giving me bad deals, because that’s kind of just what they do! It’s not like they can just hand me millions of dollars for having a cool idea, because that’s not in their best interest of thinking of their bottom line. It’s like, does your dog bite? Does it have teeth? Then, yeah, it does.

Arlan is amazing, though. She’s so cool, and it’s amazing the way that she really gets things done without coming off as an asshole. She has a gift for this. And she’s not like other VCs, because she really does want you to win. Especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a woman of color, Arlan wants you to win, and that’s really amazing to have that sort of support from your VC. If what you’re doing makes people not want to invest in your company, that’s something that Arlan would tell you, and that’s not something that other VCs would tell you.