Unfinished prototype for life-saving robot sits on his bed

Family of boy killed on Yom Kippur fundraise for his ‘robot firefighter’ project

The life of Barak Houry, 12, was tragically cut short when he was run over on his bike; his family is intent on fulfilling his dream: creating an automated fire-fighting device

Ricky Ben-David is a Times of Israel editor and reporter

Barak Houry, 12, sits next to a small-scale model of a fire-fighting robot concept he built on his own. Houry was killed while riding his bike on Yom Kippur on September 15, 2021. (Courtesy of the Houry family)
Barak Houry, 12, sits next to a small-scale model of a fire-fighting robot concept he built on his own. Houry was killed while riding his bike on Yom Kippur on September 15, 2021. (Courtesy of the Houry family)

Big ideas and undiminished dreams were a huge part of 12-year-old Barak Houry’s short life. He was a musician, an artist, a competitive swimmer, an avid knitter and sewer, and over the past year, a self-taught amateur coder, electronics technician, and robotics engineer.

After he was killed by an alleged drunk driver while riding his bike last week on Yom Kippur, his family launched a fundraising campaign to bring to life the project he was working on for the past year — an automated fire-fighting robot that can detect fires and extinguish them, saving human lives in the process.

The pre-teen, just a month shy of his bar mitzvah when he was killed, was immersed in a variety of interests and hobbies and threw himself wholeheartedly into new worlds, often sweeping up those around him in his ideas.

“Barak did everything with a lot of enthusiasm. He used to inspire passion in people. He would throw out ideas and he would inspire you to take part in them, and you would feel like you wanted to bring him the moon,” Houry’s mother, Tsofit, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday in an interview at the family home in Ramat Gan.

“There was no telling him no or talking him out of it,” she said.

Houry’s presence is everywhere in the family’s apartment. His artwork, mainly vast landscape paintings, line the walls and his equipment — small screws, wires, glue guns, fabrics, paint, and so on — often “took over communal spaces, so much so, that we would be eating dinner next to nails,” his mother joked.

And on the narrow balcony where the family laundry hangs to dry, he built an improvised workshed made out of repurposed drawers, cupboards, and wooden planks, complete with small LED lights so he could work at night and shower curtains for privacy. He would often be there for hours fusing things together, gluing, spray-painting, sawing, and generally just building, his parents explained.

Barak Houry, 12, painting in his bedroom. (Courtesy of the Houry family)

The desk in his bedroom is also filled with pieces of equipment — drawers up to the brim with various metals and fabrics, toolboxes and tools — sketchbooks, drawing utilities, and school books. Here too, his artwork lines the walls — paintings and framed color sketches.

“Everything is as he left it,” his mom said.

On his unmade bed rests a small-scale unfinished prototype of the fire-fighting robot he had been working on. To build it, he consumed hours and hours of YouTube videos and instruction manuals on electronics, sensors, and robotics, his family said.

The device is powered by a solar panel outfitted with sensors for navigation and the detection of heat and light. Barak attached small plastic containers onto the robot to house flame retardants and taught himself coding to control the robot.

“He was an entrepreneur, an inventor, in every sense of the word. He wouldn’t let up until we got him the materials and equipment he needed for his projects,” his father, Isaac Houry, said.

Barak Houry, 12, built a fire-fighting robot prototype as a side project. (Courtesy of the Houry family)

If the family had had a private house, “Barak would probably have taken over the garage,” he said.

His dad was only happy to oblige because “everything he did, everything he wanted to do, was for his personal development, for growth.”

Neither Isaac, a lawyer, nor Tsofit, an optometrist, knew much about electronics or robotics or coding, or even music composing for that matter. But they were avid fans of Barak, their middle child, and talk about his many interests with admiration and awe.

A born creator

Barak’s mom described a deeply curious and creative child who came up with ideas easily and frequently.

“When he was around five years old, he sat on the balcony and made up a new Lego figure, which he drew in great detail on a piece of paper the size of our living room table. He asked us to take a picture and send it to the company, which we did. They responded and said they would love to employ him when he is older,” Tsofit recalled.

In kindergarten, he decided he was going to give a presentation to his peers about dinosaurs and came up with an extensive plan to decorate the classroom with branches and leaves and dinosaur figures made of clay. He even selected relevant music “to provide a unique experience for the kids,” his mom said.

“He wanted to ignite their imagination. It was a hit,” she remembered.

Barak Houry, 12, in his workshed on the family home’s balcony in Ramat Gan. (Courtesy of the Houry family)

A few years later, Barak started learning piano and then joined two separate bands, one in which he was the lead singer.

“He used to sing in English, he didn’t want to sing in Hebrew. They used to play songs by the Beatles, Bon Jovi, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Coldplay, which he especially loved,” Tsofit said.

He also composed original sounds and loved classical music, she added, recalling a time he gave a class presentation on the history of pianos and finished it off by performing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the delight of his teacher and the surprise of his classmates.

His art, sowing, and knitting were all self-taught. And he loved swimming. “Six days a week, three hours a day,” said Tsofit.

“He took advantage of every moment, he didn’t waste a single minute,” she said. “It’s like he crammed several lives into one short one.”

Barak Houry’s bedroom at his family’s home in Ramat Gan. (Yuval Chen, courtesy of Yediot Acharonot)

When the pandemic broke out last year and school kids were forced online to learn, Barak “saw it as an opportunity. He did so much during the pandemic when many others were suffering in front of their screens,” she said.

He decided to learn Arabic so he could speak to his Iraqi-born paternal grandmother and sat down studiously with a private teacher on Zoom for months.

But he was also a star student and never behind on his schoolwork, his dad added.

Barak came up with the idea of the fire-fighting robot during this period. “He said, ‘I want to invent something that will change the world,'” recalled Isaac. He carried out extensive research and finally settled on this particular project.

Isaac and Tsofit Houry at their family home in Ramat Gan. Their son, Barak, was killed on Yom Kippur, September 15, 2021. (Yuval Chen courtesy of Yediot Acharonot)

His parents offered to look for professionals to help, like engineers and electronics experts, but he brushed them off. “‘No need, I have everything in my head,'” his mom said he told her.

His mind was always racing with new ideas and thoughts and he often sought to challenge himself, his parents said.

On the day he was killed, last Wednesday, Barak had set out to meet a close friend from his swimming team who lived in Petah Tikva, an approximately 7-mile (11 km) journey. Barak printed out maps “because he didn’t want to use [navigation app] Waze, as a way to challenge himself, and we went over them together,” his father said.

He prepared a bag with water and snacks and he “was so excited that he left without saying goodbye,” said Tsofit. About two hours later, the friend’s mother called and said that Barak has never made it to their house.

Shortly after, a pair of policemen showed up at the family’s door and told them that there had been an accident, without going into further detail.

Tsofit and Isaac were escorted to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, where their son had been taken in critical condition. He had been run over on Route 4 near Givat Shmuel.

“We didn’t know anything about how he was doing. The ride with the police was horrific,” said Isaac.

“When we got there, we got to see Barak. Fifteen minutes later, he was gone,” said his mom.

“It is a huge loss for us, but also for the world,” she added.

The family began thinking about how they wanted to “carry out his vision, and share his knowledge because he inspired so many.”

The firefighting robot built by Barak Houry. (Yuval Chen courtesy of Yediot Acharonot)

On Saturday, they launched a crowdfunding campaign, hoping to gather NIS 1 million ($312,000) in two rounds, to bring Barak’s mission to life. The campaign has raised over NIS 350,000 of the first NIS 500,000 by Thursday.

“We want to make the real thing, we want to make the fire-fighting robot, and for that we need engineers and people. We don’t even know if a million shekels is enough,” said Tsofit.

The family also wants to create a sort of database of resources for kids Barak’s age, so they could pursue similar projects with more support.

Meanwhile, they have also been fielding inquiries and requests from Barak’s friends and those whose lives he touched, as well as from people across the country looking for ways to help.

“The band he was in wanted to do a charity show and donate the money, and the swim team is looking for ways to be involved. We’ve been contacted by firefighters and scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and many others,” Tsofit and Isaac said.

President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal wrote a comment on the fundraising page applauding the family’s efforts to commemorate Barak with this initiative.

“The whole country has been inspired, and the fire is still in us, it still drives us to do this,” said Tsofit.

“He wanted to be known as an inventor, to be famous. We want to fulfill his dreams to give to humanity, and to change humanity,” Isaac concluded.

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