As an intern at Systems Engineering Inc. this summer, Saimanga “Sreya” Palnati, a then-rising third-year systems engineering major in the University of Virginia Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, accepted a daunting task.
The Northern Virginia-based company planned to enter a nationwide competition sponsored by the Public Safety Communications Research Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The competition’s overarching goal, broken down into four categories, was to develop tools to detect and analyze emergency events using public safety data. There was money on the line, $30,000 for each category.
When winners were announced in September, Palnati’s team was among them.
Palnati’s boss, chief technology officer Roy Hayes, asked her to develop the company’s proposal for the competition. Systems Engineering Inc. specializes in developing situational awareness systems for the federal government — meaning the company provides technology to automate the collection and analysis of security data used to protect sensitive facilities around the world, Hayes said.
“I asked Sreya to write a proposal for the competition focused on developing a concept to automate analysis for public safety. She did most of the writing and research, requiring my team to simply edit her sections. We won in the hardest category,” said Hayes, a triple Hoo who finished at UVA in 2018 after earning his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in systems engineering.
“Over the past few years, I have made it my mission to transition this technology to states and municipalities, because I believe it can save lives by ensuring a coordinated and expedited response to life-safety incidents,” Hayes said. “We hoped this challenge would showcase our technology and skills, allowing us to transfer technology at the federal level to state and local governments.”
Data in the kind of events Hayes referenced is acquired fast and furious in real time. The information comes from fixed security, cell phone or vehicle cameras; 911 calls and texts; communications among first responders and with dispatchers; social media posts including text, photos, video, graphics and audio; and sensors including gunshot detection systems, first-responder tracking systems (GPS) and automated license plate readers.
“I’d never written a proposal before, let alone one where thousands of dollars were at stake,” Palnati said, noting she took pride in being trusted with the project. “I saw it as a challenge and committed myself to learning whatever I needed to about automated emergency event analysis to write a great proposal.”
Hayes had full faith in Palnati. She impressed him from the moment she cold-called the company and wound up becoming its first intern hire.
Palnati found the firm online while looking for engineering companies near her Ashburn home. “They weren’t even looking for interns, but I was really intrigued by the work they were doing, so I called them and asked anyway. It was a lucky coincidence that the chief technology officer [Hayes] is a UVA systems engineering alumnus!”
Hayes also happened to be teaching Introduction to Information Technology Concepts and Security for the UVA Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the time, so they set up an on-Grounds interview.
“Sreya showed an unusual amount of drive for someone so young,” Hayes said.
When the pandemic broke out, Palnati kept in touch, checking the status of her internship and investigating the company’s COVID-related protocols. Her actions told Hayes she could work independently, a critical skill in a small business.
By the time she managed the proposal project — leading a team that included an Irish software engineering firm and a retired Navy admiral — Palnati had proved her worth. Before the summer was over, she developed a training guide for a portable system used to secure overseas government meetings, mapped and diagramed the company’s information technology network, and constructed a tool that will lock down a facility if a gunshot is detected nearby. The latter she made using an inexpensive Raspberry Pi computer and custom Python software.
“The lockdown project was really cool,” Palnati said. “We partnered with ShotSpotter and minimized a lot of our cost by using cheap resources. And it has the potential to save many lives in active-shooter situations.”
Those tasks involved both hands-on engineering and documentation experience, Hayes said. “I also wanted to provide Sreya with the experience of writing a proposal. As my dad says, ‘You have to win the work to do the work.’ It is a critical skill that is often overlooked by engineers.”
For Palnati, who attributes some of her successes to Hayes’ mentorship and the company’s positive environment and teamwork, the internship was affirming.
“I’m so grateful that it exposed me to both the technical — coding, virtual machines — and non-technical — consulting work, writing proposals — sides of systems engineering,” Palnati said, noting the challenging work gave her confidence in herself and a sense of purpose.
“I’ve always been drawn to problem-solving and maximizing the efficiency of things and in a very broad sense, that’s exactly what systems engineering is about.”
That is perhaps good news to Hayes, who said their work is not done. “There is a second round of the competition where we will be building the solution,” he said. “As of right now, I expect our team — including Sreya — to stick together to build it.”