Robot Lifeguards and Drones That Spot Sharks
If you’re toning your summer bod with the expectation that you’ll be in the company of lifeguards who look like David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Truth is, beaches and pools nowadays are dominated by senior citizen lifeguards – people aged 55 and up – because this job is no longer “cool” for this generation – no matter how many jet skis The Rock and Zac Efron have exploding in their wake. Yes, they made a Baywatch movie starring these two tools which was every bit as bad as it sounds:
The fact that dishwashers earn more than lifeguards doesn’t really help the profession either, so it should come as no surprise that today’s millennials don’t have any desire to save the estimated 360,000 people who drown every year around the world. Instead, robots and drones just might take over these jobs. Let’s take a look at seven startups that want to use robots and drones to save lives on beaches around the globe.
Founded in 2009, Arizona startup Hydronalix has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop a product line called EMILY which stands for EMergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard. The company claims that this product “is useful for rescuing swimmers human lifeguards cannot reach”, and it’s been saving lives since as far back as 2012.
While EMILY initially takes the form of an unimpressive giant duffel bag (kind of like how David Hasselhoff looks today), NPR says that this $14,000 jet-powered buoy is “virtually indestructible”, a claim that’s backed up by the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research which helped birth the concept. The involvement of the Navy, which dates back to 2001, could also possibly explain why Mulligan built EMILY with inner gears made of Kevlar as well as aircraft-grade composites.
This remote-controlled 4-foot long robotic buoy is made of lightweight fiberglass and powered by an electric motor that pumps a jet of water, allowing it to swim through riptides at an impressive 24 MPH. It’s so durable that rescuers can just throw it off helicopters or bridges (yet another similarity with Hasselhoff) without worrying about damaging its chiseled physique. All you patriots out there will be thrilled to hear that the finished product is 98% made in ‘Murica – with its composite hull fresh off of the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation in Arizona.
Founded in 2005, Port Macquarie startup The Ripper Group has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to date to develop “SharkSpotter”, the “world’s first automatic, real-time artificially intelligent shark detection system for drones.” This invention, which they developed alongside the University of Technology Sydney, merges artificial intelligence with drone technology to identify potential threats near swimmers and alert rescuers of the situation.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are able to detect sharks 90% of the time when equipped with the SharkSpotter – which means in the other 10% of cases, the sharks just get to munch away – unless of course we keep a “human-in-the-loop”. Either way, this is still much better than conventional techniques where lifeguards in helicopters only have about 18% accuracy in terms of detecting danger in the water while spotters in fixed-wing aircraft are at 12% and rescuers analyzing aerial imagery are at 20-30%.
Source: The Ripper Group
Aside from sharks, this product can also detect and identify other threats in the water using real-time aerial image analysis which uses “deep learning” to detect dangerous objects. Once a shark or any other danger is spotted, the SharkSpotter – with its real-time data processing software – sends an alarm to alert lifesavers.
Apart from the SharkSpotter, The Ripper Group also has Rescue Pods (aka ULBs, which stands for “you little beauty”) which are comprised of a lifesaving flotation pod which is dropped in the vicinity of the drowning swimmers or those trapped in a rip or close to approaching sharks. The parcel, which is deployed from a Mini Ripper UAV by the rescuers on shore, has an electronic shark repellent that can keep the sharks away for up to 8 hours, a self-inflating flotation device that can carry 3-4 people, an EPIRB signaling unit, and other water and safety devices.
Founded in 2015, Spanish startup General Drones has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding so far to develop Auxdron, a “definitive drone that can quickly and effectively transport up to two self-inflating life jackets to the victim, safely housed in the loading bay for optimal dynamic performance.” The Auxdron has four arms, eight rotors, and three modules – all of which can carry a tethered lifejacket. It’s made with a waterproof carbon fiber body and has the ability to fly for up to 26 minutes while carrying two lifejackets.
Basically, the Auxdron has two primary goals – the first is to locate the victims and hover near them to direct the lifeguards to the right direction and the second is to send relevant information to the responders like the number of victims, their conditions, and the quickest exit points.
Founded in 2015, Fort Lauderdale startup Flying Robots LLC has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding so far to develop Project Ryptide. This is a small, lightweight drone accessory that can deliver an automatically inflating life preserver to a swimmer in trouble. So far, the only thing they really need to be focused on are the 79 backers who pledged $10,522 to help bring this project to life. Yep, Project Ryptide was a Kickstarter project started by a group of high schoolers who were challenged by their robotics teacher to figure out ways to apply drone technology. The peak of optimism was perhaps when their project was featured in the Daily Mail and Connecticut Magazine, but lately things look dire. Red flags abound in the comments section of their Kickstarter page – with very angry messages from alleged backers of the project who claimed to have reported Project Ryptide as a scam to the admins of the platform. Their last comments can be seen below from a year ago:
As for the company’s website, it shows absolutely no information about the project or what happened to the handful of money they received from their backers. It’s just another reason why crowdfunding is best avoided.
Founded in 2016, Paris startup Helper Drone has taken in approximately $419,000 in funding so far to develop a piece of technology called HELPER, which stands for Human Environment and Life Protection Emergency Response. This is how the drone works. Once a lifeguard spots someone in distress, he can click on the app to deploy the drone which will be automatically launched to the location the lifeguard clicked on. HELPER has a built-in camera that will allow the lifeguard to assess the situation. With another click on the actual location of the victim, the drone will release a lifejacket nearby. In some instances, HELPER can also drop self-inflating life buoys equipped with communications systems to allow the victim to talk to the lifeguard onshore.
Source: HELPER Drone
Apart from spotting drowning victims, HELPER can also identify spills of pollutants in water as well as enhance the radio communications for boats close to oil platforms and even provide images directly to any crisis room across the globe. HELPER’s main market so far is France, where some municipalities pay $700 per drone to provide HELPER rescue services. The drone also caught the attention of global oil and gas company Total – making it the first ever drone authorized to fly on an oil rig.
Founded in 2014, London startup RTS Ideas took in an undisclosed amount in funding so far to develop Roboguard, a GPS-enabled drone that according to one source we read, had already been sold to distributors in Mexico, Brazil, and Italy. The $8,500 drone was initially designed to hover over the water and drop life-preserver rings to victims, but supposedly future versions of the robotic lifeguard transform into a hovercraft that can carry its potential victim to shore. The battery can last for 15 minutes, and has a speed of 50km/h.
Source: Drone Blog
Not stopping there, the company then created an even better unit that can also be fitted with thermal cameras for nighttime missions and can operate autonomously using artificial intelligence. Fast forward to today and the website no longer appears to function. They’ve either gone into hiding as a stealth mode company or they ran out of funding and went kaput.
Founded in 2005, German startup Microdrones GmbH collaborated with the German Lifeguard Association to fuse two technologies – UAVs and a highly compact floatation device called RESTUBE – to save overweight pasty-white Germans from “ertricken.” With approximately $680,000 in funding, plans have been made to use these drones equipped with compact flotation devices and cameras to quickly fly out to people who are potential drowning victims.
This is how it works. When a lifeguard spots someone in danger, he deploys a UAV with a RESTUBE attached to it. Once the drone reaches the location of the victim, it will stream a live video that will guide the lifeguard/pilot/operator on where to drop the RESTUBE. The device will keep the victim afloat until the lifeguards arrive.
Big Wave Surfer Sebastian Steudtner says that “RESTUBE is the peace of mind for everybody” and it actually helped his mother to swim again. Meanwhile, some French athlete nobody has ever heard of, Loïc Branda, claims that if he swims with RESTUBE, “I feel safe, I feel free to swim further and longer but always with the same pleasure of liberty.” When the French are talking nicely about a German company, it’s got to tell you something.
Apart from these startups, other large corporations and municipalities are interested in the robot lifeguard space as well. The Coastal Rescue and Safety System of Dubai has already launched their own version of robotic and drone lifeguards called The Flying Rescuer. Even Vodafone is looking to take a piece of the action, with their drone operators trained by the National Agency for Safety Aviation. With robots and drones being able to improve the ability for lifeguards to save lives, adoption is a no-brainer. If these innovative technologies fail to catch on, at least it gives our senior citizens something a bit more exciting to do than hanging out at the bingo hall. And that’s not such a bad thing after all.