Mom Designs Drone To Track Kids Who Wander
MILWAUKEE — Ask any busy mom whether she could use a second set of eyes to watch her young children, and she would likely say “yes.”
Christine Carr says she may have found a way to do that.
The parent of a young daughter with autism, Carr graduated this month from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. For her senior thesis, Carr created a video camera-equipped drone designed to give parents some extra help keeping an eye on their kids.
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She calls the device “Nonni” because it is a combination of a “nanny” and a “mommy.”
“It’s sometimes just a challenge to do laundry or get chores done because you feel like you need to be there all the time,” said Carr, 35.
Carr and her husband, Colin, have two children: 6-year-old Lillian, who has autism, and 3-year-old Cairenn.
The sphere-shaped Nonni has a camera that transmits a video feed to a parent’s smartphone.
A parent can also program the drone to set boundaries for what is considered a safe space for the child — perhaps a backyard or a playroom.
The drone interacts with electronic signals that set those boundaries. Those signals could be wires buried in a backyard, similar to the electronic fence that some pet owners use, or they could be on posts, Carr said.
Nonni uses facial recognition technology to monitor the child from a distance. The drone would be stationary unless the child strayed from the safe space, Carr said.
At that point, the drone would hover toward the child and use a recorded voice message from the parent to prompt the child to go to a safe area.
In Carr’s case, it would be her voice saying, “Do you want a cup?” That phrase helps control Lillian’s behavior, reflecting a common practice among parents with children on the spectrum, Carr said.
The device needs to be “as customizable as possible because children with autism have individual needs,” she said.
There are no products on the market quite like Nonni, Carr said.
There are devices such as AngelSense. It uses GPS technology to help parents track the movements of a child with special needs through signals sent remotely to a smartphone. AngelSense also allows a parent to listen to what their child is saying or doing.
But it doesn’t have a video camera.
Also, AngelSense is usually used to track children who are walking or taking the bus to school, or doing other activities outside their home, Carr said.
Nonni is aimed at a more narrow use: monitoring children within the home.
People with disabilities who wander from their home or other safe area can often end up in danger, said Amy Van Hecke, an autism researcher and a Marquette University associate professor of psychology.
According to a 2012 survey, 49 percent of parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder reported that the child attempted to wander or run away at least once after age 4.
Nonni could play a role in helping prevent such children from wandering, Van Hecke said.
Carr has a provisional patent for the design and wants to pursue efforts to take her idea to market. Other possible uses could be for people who care for those with Alzheimer’s disease, she said.
Carr, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and industrial design, hopes to pitch Nonni to investors.
An inventor who tries to create a commercially viable product typically faces “a long, uphill battle,” said Jim Boyle, a Milwaukee intellectual property attorney.
The process includes testing the product’s engineering and creating a sales network, said Boyle.
Carr is aware of those realities.
“I may not be selling a ton of products or making a lot of money, but it makes me feel good to be able to help if I can,” she said.
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