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'Remote-controlled life rings' could soon be saving lives on the Great Lakes

Drones and remote-controlled flotation devices are being built to keep swimmers safe and associate professor Andrew Barnard and his team of undergraduate students are working to create a more affordable option.

Water rescue drones can cost upwards of $10,000

Professor Andrew Barnard and his team of undergraduate students at Michigan Technological University are working to create an affordable, remote-controlled life saving tool. (Andrew Barnard)

With its red snub nose and peppy orange flag the device being tested by students from Michigan Technological University doesn't look like a typical lifeguard, but it could soon be saving people from drowning in the Great Lakes.

Drones and remote-controlled flotation devices are being built to keep swimmers safe and associate professor Andrew Barnard and his team of undergraduate students are working to create a more affordable option.

"It's basically a collection of PVC pipes with some small motors and some foam around it to provide flotation," he explained. "What we're trying to do is make a remote-controlled life ring."

2016 saw a 78% spike in drownings

Last year there were 98 drownings in the Great Lakes, a spike of 78 percent compared to 2015, according to statistics gathered by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a Michigan non-profit organization.

Barnard knows the numbers well, and although autonomous drones for water rescues already exist they can cost upwards of $10,000, too much for many small communities around the lakes to afford.

The students are working to build something similar in the $1,000 to $2,000 range that can be operated by first responders, or even bystanders, if need be.

"Once a person gets in a bad situation and the waves start hitting them it's very hard to recover," the professor explained. "This gives an untrained rescuer a way to try to change the situation for the better in as short a time as possible." 

Water rescue drones can cost upwards of $10,000. Barnard and his team are hoping to make a device that will cost only $1,000-$2,000 so smaller communities can afford it. (Andrew Barnard)

The danger of drowning is something Jamie Racklyeft knows all too well.

Five years ago, while out for a swim, the Michigan man found himself "moonwalking" on his way back to the beach as a rip current began to pull him into deeper water.

"The waves were just relentless," he said. "They were three and four feet high and came every five or six seconds. I was getting pounded down."

Racklyeft was saved by two kayakers that day, but the water safety advocate said remote-controlled flotation tools could save lives while keeping rescuers safe too.

Barnard said there's still some work to be done on the device his students are building, but he's hoping to have it in the hands of emergency crews by the middle of next year so they can test it and give feedback.

"We're trying to give first responders another option, or even onlookers without putting themselves at risk," he said. "That's especially important on the Great Lakes."

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