Island women help design new life jacket with GPS tracking technology

Engineering students at UNB are developing a smart life jacket they believe could save lives by automatically sending a signal from someone who has gone overboard to nearby vessels and the Coast Guard.

Engineering students at UNB want to help save lives with new design

From left, UNB engineering students Amy Andrews, Kaitlin MacIsaac, Phoenix Bard-Cavers holding the tracking device the team built, and Bridget McCloskey. (Cameron Fitch/UNB)

Engineering students at UNB are developing a smart life jacket they believe could save lives by automatically sending a signal from someone who has gone overboard to nearby vessels and the Coast Guard.

Amy Andrews and Bridget McCloskey are both from Charlottetown while their teammates Phoenix Bard-Cavers and Caitlin MacIsaac are from Nova Scotia.

"Since we're all from coastal communities ... we all have close ties to the fishing industry," said Andrews from her home in Fredericton. "And we see a lot of accidents unfortunately in that industry, and we don't really see a lot being done to lessen that."

'More efficient finding people'

The women are in a technology management and entrepreneurship program at UNB that asks students to design and manufacture what could be a commercially viable product. 

The team is now looking at prototypes and hopes to have one ready in April. (Cameron Fitch/UNB)

"The four of us are friends outside of class and we decided we'd give it a shot and see how we could help," Andrews said.

They came up with an inflatable life vest with a built-in tracking device — they call it the LifeTrack Outlast life jacket. 

A lot of people have probably thought 'Oh that would be great to have' but no one's really moved forward with it.— Amy Andrews

"Basically if you fall off a vessel and hit the water, the life jacket will inflate," said McCloskey. "If you're in a safe area, you have 30 seconds to cancel the message, so if someone's pulling you out you can cancel it. 

"But if you don't cancel that message it'll send out an emergency distress message over marine radio. So that'll be able to be received by nearby vessels or the Coast Guard as well."

The distress signal will include the person's GPS location.

"It would just ... make it so much more efficient finding people," Andrews added. 

'Increase their chances of survival'

They are aiming their product primarily at the commercial fishing industry. 

Fishermen in P.E.I. and New Brunswick are not required by law to wear life vests, but they are in Nova Scotia. (CBC )

"A lot of people don't wear life jackets when they're on the water unfortunately. So we're trying to find a way to make a more comfortable life jacket that people will wear but will also give them added features to increase their chances of survival if they happen to be in an emergency situation overboard," Andrews said. 

With that in mind, the group surveyed some Maritime fishermen and asked them what would make them more likely to wear a life vest, as well as to safety associations. 

"Unfortunately you run into the problem of a fisherman who has been fishing for ages and don't see the need to wear one which is pretty hard to change their mind," Andrews said. Other factors were that life jackets can limit mobility or get snagged on equipment — plus, they can be hot in summer. 

'Hopefully more people will use them'

"We're trying to make it that easy to keep people safe though, so hopefully more people will use them," Andrews said. 

The team is now deciding whether to continue developing the device at UNB for another year. (Cameron Fitch/UNB)

They're planning to make them from soft, stretchy neoprene fabric with the idea that fishermen would wear them over their gear, Andrews said, so it shouldn't obstruct movements when working on a boat. It would inflate automatically if a fisherman went overboard. 

They don't have a final prototype yet, but are working toward having a draft version in the next few weeks so they can present it at UNB's annual Engineering Design Symposium April 4 at the Fredericton Convention Centre. That's where final-year engineering students demonstrate their designs and prototypes to the community.

'Huge value-added feature'

They don't have a price finalized for the smart life jackets, but Andrews said they're looking at about $400, which is just slightly more than some other self-inflatable vests. 

Life vests are not as big and bulky as they used to be. Here, Red Cross employees demonstrate a newer flotation device. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

"People are paying for those with just the inflatable life jacket — that doesn't include anything for communications systems at all. So it would be a huge value-added feature," said Andrews.

Andrews said fishermen have encouraged them to develop the product.

"They all seem very optimistic, they are very excited that there was an option," said Andrews.

Initial response from the Maritime Fishermen's Union, which has 1,300 members in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, was positive.

"Anything that is going to save lives in the fishing industry is really really important," said the union's Ruth Inniss. 

"Last year we had an abysmal amount of accidents, deaths ... and that's really unacceptable."

Fishermen are required by law to wear life jackets in Nova Scotia and under certain circumstances on P.E.I. but not New Brunswick. 

The team will soon be at a crucial point: they're all in their final year of studies, but they could continue to develop the life jacket through a UNB summer program and possibly through a special master's program next year. 

"I think it would be very exciting to move forward with it because I think it would be a really important piece of technology for people to have," said Andrews. "It's one of those ideas that I think a lot of people have probably thought 'Oh that would be great to have' but no one's really moved forward with it. It would be pretty cool to be part of that."

If this design is successful, Andrews said they could look at designs for the recreational boating market as well. "This is just our first prototype hopefully," she said. 

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  • A previous version of this story indicated P.E.I. fishermen are not required to wear PFDs. However P.E.I.'s Occupational Health and Safety Act states where there is a risk of drowning, and under certain circumstances, workers are required to wear PFDs.
    Mar 11, 2019 3:43 PM AT


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at