“The Gap” represents a type of no-mans land for lifeguards. It’s the area that the deeper water patrol boats (such as the Hellenic Coast Guard cutters use in the channel between Turkey and Greece and the smaller rigid hull inflatable boats used by NGOs) cannot enter due to draft restrictions but is too far out for lifeguards on shore to wade and has to be approached by a swimming lifeguard. If the boat capsizes, people fall or misjudge the depth and jump off, or the boat runs aground, the lifeguards in patrol boats are not in position to help. The lifeguards on land have to swim floatation devices out, taking valuable time and risking panicking people trying to climb on their heads.
CRASAR and Roboticists Without Borders members are on Lesvos on day 2 of a 10 day deployment to Greece to assist the local Coast Guard and lifeguard organizations in rescuing refugees from drowning. As you may know over 300 refugees have drowned, with 34 bodies found on Jan. 5, seven of which were children. We are deploying two types of robots: the EMILY marine vehicle that is used worldwide to assist lifeguards, a Fotokite, plus ruggedized Sonim phones from our Texas A&M sister center, the Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center. This is my 21st disaster and I’ve never seen such a diversity of NGOs working so well together and such a compassionate local population. It is an honor to think that we could provide them with useful tools to do their amazing and heartbreaking work. As you see in the video below, think of EMILY as a combination of a large life preserver with a battery powered miniature jet ski that a lifeguard can radio control. Based on prior use and talking with the PROEM-AID and PROACTIVA lifeguard teams here, we have identified 4 possible uses for her- 2 of which are standard operating procedures but 2 are new challenges posed by the unique situation here. The lessons learned here would be applicable to other marine catastrophes such as the cruise ships or ferries sinking.
This is a standard use of EMILY. As illustrated in the above video, we demonstrated the EMILY robot to the PROEM-AID lifeguard team from Spain- two of whom are shown here as victims hanging on. 5 or more people can hang on. In rescues from a life boat (versus the shore), EMILY zooms out with a line because lifeguards can pull her back loaded with people faster than she jet-ski back. Plus it is much less scary for victims to have that wallowing sounds, wake, and vibration.
In this video, Chief Fernando Boiteux of the CRASAR team (in blue) demonstrated using a smartphone to view EMILY’s onboard camera, which can switch between visible light and infrared. A member of the PROACTIVA lifeguard team (red, black)- is shown driving EMILY. The lifeguard can direct EMILY to victims out of easy range of sight by using EMILY’s onboard camera.
One area that we hope to collect data on is the use of thermal imagery to help the lifeguard see the victims at night and in high waves. (And our students will be working on algorithms to exploit this new sensor to make EMILY smarter.)
It’s straightforward to send EMILY out to a boat in trouble, tell the people to unclip the line (yes, EMILY has two-way audio) and tie it to their boats. EMILY does this a lot in the Pacific Northwest where kayakers get pummeled by waves on the rocky shore and the rescue boat can’t get close enough. Once the line is on the kayaker, the rescue boat hauls it off the rocks while EMILY zooms back out of the way. This may be very useful at Lesvos because parts of the shore are treacherous.
Given that EMILY has two-way audio, goes 20 MPH, and a long radio-control range (plus the spiffy flag for visibility), PROACTIVE lifeguards envisioned that when a boat that was heading to a bad location, they could use EMILY to guide whoever was piloting the boat to the better beach.
The refugee crossings present a new scenario- how to handle a large number of people in the water. Some may be in different levels of distress, elderly or children, or unconscious. One solution is to use EMILY to go to the people who are still able to grab on, while the lifeguards swim to aid the people who need special professional attention. Chief John Sims from Rural/Metro Fire Department, Pima, (our 4th team member) is anticipating situations where rescuers can concentrate on saving children and unconscious victims while sending EMILY to the conscious and responsive people. We are also going to experiment with the Fotokite, which is NOT considered a UAV by aviation agencies. It is a tethered aerial camera originally developed for safe and easy photo journalism- specifically because tethered aircraft like balloons and kites under certain altitudes are not regulated. I was immediately impressed when I saw it at DroneApps last year. It’s both a solid technology and it can be used where small unmanned aerial systems cannot be used since the flying camera is tethered. One challenge that the lifeguards have is seeing exactly what the situation is and who is in what kind of distress. That could be magnified in the chaos of a capsized boat. Even a 10 or 20 foot view could help rescuers see over the waves and better prioritize their lifesaving actions. I am delighted that Sergei Lupashin and his team scrambled over the holidays to get us one.
We expect to primarily deploy from lifeguard boats that go out to the refugees boats but perhaps from the beach as well. Note that EMILY doesn’t replace a responder, it is one more tool that they can use. It is a mature technology that helped responders save lives since 2012 (see https://lifesaving.com/node/2815). I first saw a prototype in 2010 and Tony Mulligan, creator and CEO of Hydronalix, and Chief Fernando Boiteux from the LA County Fire Department brought EMILY to our Summer Institute on Flooding in 2015- and they are deploying. Chief Boiteux is using his vacation days to come and serve as an expert operator. This is another case of proven mature robot technology that exists but is not getting the attention and adoption it deserves. I hate to make too much of a big deal about our deployment as we still haven’t done anything yet. And it’s not about us, but about helping the selfless work that the Hellenic Coast Guard and NGOs are doing and have been doing through sun and storm, hot and cold. However, this deployment is being funded out of pocket. Even with Roushan Zenooz and Hydronalix donating partial travel costs and Fotokite donating a platform, we are still short. So please consider donating at https://www.gofundme.com/Friends-of-CRASAR to cover the remaining costs (we couldn’t wait any longer). Once we can establish the utility of EMILY, we also hope to raise enough additional money to leave an EMILY (or multiple ones) behind.