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Business for Good: Firearm detection software ZeroEyes

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Like parents across the country, Mike Lahiff of Philadelphia knows how it feels to worry about the toll that frequent mass shootings and active target practice take on children.

Shortly after the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, his daughter’s high school began conducting target practice. She came home sad, leaving Lahiff frustrated at not knowing how to help her feel safe at school.

“It feels like every time you turn on the news, you see another school shooting,” says Lahiff. “I was like, Something has to happen.”

Shooting shots in the US

Last year, the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence, counted 647 mass shootings and 20,190 homicides in the United States. Education Week reports that there were 51 school shootings last year. Some schools — including Philly’s middle and high schools — have installed metal detectors and are conducting gun searches to ensure students don’t bring firearms. However, there have been 33 mass shootings across the country so far this year across the country.

While waiting after school one day to pick up his daughter from sports practice, Lahiff noticed that her high school was full of security cameras. But when he asked a school official how the cameras were used to protect student safety, he was told no one is watching them. They just check the images after incidents have occurred.

“I was like, Wait a minute: why don’t we use them to detect weapons? If people could use facial recognition technology through security cameras, why can’t we focus on gun detection??” he remembers thinking.

A former Navy SEAL who attended The Wharton School of Business, Lahiff had dabbled in tech startups and previously worked for Comcast as director of digital programs. With his military experience and technical background, he thought he could be the person to create such software. So he gathered a team and founded ZeroEyes, a Conshohocken-based security software company that uses artificial intelligence to detect firearms in live security camera feeds and direct authorities.

By installing ZeroEyes software in cameras in high-traffic areas in the city’s subway stations, SEPTA hopes to maximize the technology it already has to detect incidents and quickly deploy police to those locations.

Since launching in 2019, ZeroEyes has accumulated over 100 customers in 30 states and three countries. Next month, they will partner with SEPTA to install their software in 300 of the transit system’s more than 30,000 cameras.

Launch SEALs software

When Lahiff got the idea for ZeroEyes, he called his friend Sam Alaimo. The pair met in the early 2000s when they were both Navy SEALs. Lahiff had dropped out of college shortly after 9/11 to enlist. Alamino joined the Navy in 2009 after dreaming of becoming a SEAL since he was 14 years old. Both served until 2013. When Lahiff called him, Alamino was working in private equity and trying to find a job with more purpose.

“I was actually like, Hey man, what do you think about doing something to stop school shootings?‘ says Lahiff. “And Sam was like, Damn yes.”

Together they gathered a team of former SEALs and military veterans, many with backgrounds in finance and technology, to become the founders of ZeroEyes. They included Timothy Sulzer, co-founder and chief operations officer, who had worked for Amazon after retiring from the SEALs, and Dustin Brooks, chief customer officer and co-founder. Both also worked with Lahiff when he first came out of the Navy.

The group worked together to create software that could recognize firearms from Lahiff’s basement. They scoured the internet for images of weapons to use as a database so that artificial intelligence can learn and detect what different types of weapons look like. Then they started testing the software on films to see if it could recognize firearms.

“It was detecting weapons The Matrix. We thought, oh this is sweet‘ says Lahiff.

The next step was to see if it could detect firearms in security camera footage. They set up cameras outside Lahiff’s house and walked around outside with guns. The system kept going off, but this time it picked up everything but the firearms.

Part of the problem with the software was that the data they pulled from the internet didn’t reflect what guns might look like in the real world. The shots were well lit, clearly visible and close to the camera – basically what guns look like in movies. But in real life, when someone tries to conceal a weapon, they can walk through low-light areas or far from cameras.

“It worked terribly,” says Lahiff. “We realized that we had to create our own data and be very meticulous about it.”

So the team started filming themselves walking around with different types of weapons in different environments. They took into account factors such as lighting and distance from the camera. The owners of a water park in Delaware that was closed for the winter allowed them to hang cameras and film themselves walking around with firearms so they could gather more data.

The new scenario worked.

Firearm detection goes live

Now when the ZeroEyes system detects an object that resembles a gun, it sends a report to the ZeroEyes Operation Center (ZOC). The ZOC, staffed by former law enforcement officers and military veterans, receives alerts whenever ZeroEyes detects a firearm. Then one of the video monitors reviews the report, determines if a weapon is present and notifies the local police. The company has ZOCs in multiple time zones. The system is manned 24/7, every day of the year.

Lahiff and Alaimo want to work with veterans and former law enforcement officers because they are trained to detect weapons and have experience acting quickly in emergency situations. Hiring veterans also feels personal to them. They know how difficult it can be for former military personnel to return to civilian life and find purpose in their work.

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“When veterans are done serving, many of them struggle with transition and finding purpose and meaning in their lives again,” says Lahiff. “We are that home for them.”

The system only detects firearms. It does not use artificial intelligence for facial recognition. It also doesn’t store images of people’s faces, so schools can protect student privacy. Also, ZeroEyes’ focus on an object rather than a person helps the platform stay free of the racial and gender biases found in many AI systems.

“We are strictly object detection. And that only object we can detect is a gun,” says Alamino.

Demo of ZeroEyes software that detects firearms

In 2019, Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly, New Jersey agreed to serve as ZeroEyes beta customer. For a year, the ZeroEyes team worked in the high school hallways at night testing the system with local police departments to improve the software’s visibility in different lighting conditions.

But by 2020, having a fully functioning product ready, schools switched to virtual models due to the pandemic. Suddenly, there was less demand for ground-based security systems and a greater need for more resources that helped students and teachers transition to remote learning.

So Lahiff and Alaimo expanded their idea of ​​a customer base. Mass shootings have occurred all over America, from supermarkets to religious institutions to movie theaters and concert halls. Why don’t they set their sights on all of them?

They now work with Fortune 500 companies, corporate campuses and the US Department of Defense, in addition to school districts and universities. To protect customer privacy, ZeroEyes does not share specific incidents when their service has detected firearms. Lahiff says it has so far flagged hundreds of images that have helped clients engage authorities and de-escalate incidents.

Like many security services, ZeroEyes operates as an annual subscription. Prices vary based on the number of cameras a company wants to install the software on, the number of locations it has, and how long it plans to use the service.

Lahiff envisions a future where ZeroEyes technology is in every public building. He compared their product to other safety features such as fire protection systems or carbon monoxide detectors.

ZeroEyes on SEPTA

Like the entire city, SEPTA has been plagued by gun violence for the past two years. Robberies and heavy attacks on the transportation system have increased by 80 percent between 2019 and 2021.

In July 2022, a 14-year-old boy was charged with shooting a 19-year-old on the east platform of the Market-Frankford line at City Hall station. Last November, a man died after being shot 11 times on the Broad Street line near Fairmont Avenue.

Andrew Busch is director of media relations for SEPTA. He says the system’s security problems are exacerbated by staffing challenges due to the pandemic and the Great Resignation. He says the number of security officers has declined from about 230 employees to 210. SEPTA is actively seeking new officers and has increased pay, Busch says, but hiring efforts are still ongoing.

The SEPTA Police Department is currently monitoring their live cameras, but with so many cameras it can be difficult to pay attention to each one every second of the day. That’s where the ZeroEyes partnership comes in. By installing ZeroEyes software in cameras in high-traffic areas of the city’s subway stations, SEPTA hopes to maximize the technology it already has to detect incidents and quickly deploy police to those locations.

Busch says every time ZeroEyes detects a firearm, SEPTA security agents will receive a notification within three to five seconds. In December, SEPTA received a $4.9 million grant from the state to support the ZeroEyes pilot program.

“It literally put more eyes on the system,” says Busch. “We are very curious to see how it works on the system and how it can complement what we are already doing with our police.”

Lahiff and Alaimo declined to share revenue numbers, but say the company has grown consistently since launching in 2019. They now have more than 120 employees and expect to be in all 50 states by the end of the year. In 2021, they raised $20.9 million in a Series A round of funding led by Octave Ventures to support their growth.

Lahiff envisions a future where ZeroEyes technology is in every public building. He compared their product to other safety features such as fire protection systems or carbon monoxide detectors.

“ZeroEyes is going to be that next thing, but in terms of gun violence… We’re going to be the fire alarm of the future and we’re paving the way for that,” he says.

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Security software that detects firearms. Images courtesy of ZeroEyes