On a single day last fall, 85 boats made it to Lesvos, Greece filled with refugees. At any given moment, as many as six boats approached the shore, each filled with as many as 50 people—and each boat or raft rickety enough that it could capsize or stall at any moment.
Even after harsher winter weather began, people have continued to come at record rates. In the first few weeks of January, nearly 37,000 refugees and migrants came to Greece and Italy. Local lifeguards are overwhelmed. But now they're starting to test something new: A robotic lifeguard that can swim out to help someone who falls in the water when a human lifeguard is still on shore.
"You've got the [lifeguards] in the control boat and the ones on the shore—and you've got that gap in between," says Robin Murphy, who leads the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, and who went to Greece during the school's winter break to help test the robo-lifeguard out.
"They get into these situations where if you're on shore, you can't get out there fast enough," she says.
Patrol boats in deeper water are only allowed to come a certain distance from shore—even if someone's in trouble—and lifeguards standing on the shore can only swim out to a certain distance. Now the robot can cover the space in the middle.
The robot, called Emily (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard), made by a company called Hydronalix, is essentially a remote-controllable life preserver, tethered to shore with a rope. Someone on the beach can send the robot to a potential victim—or, in the case of Greece, the robots can bob around in the water as boats arrive.
Emily was originally designed for more ordinary beach situations—if a couple of swimmers started to get close to a riptide, for example, a lifeguard might send the robot out and shout a warning. Because what's happening in Greece is much more complex, robotics students at A&M will be working with the manufacturer to help adapt it.
"When it's good weather and warm, at these different beaches, you'll get four to eight boats showing up at the same time," says Murphy. "You're talking maybe five lifeguards in boats, three or four on the shore." It's not enough, she says, to keep track of the 50 or so people who may be on each boat, especially when a third of them are kids who can't swim.
In its current state, the robot needs to be directed. But Murphy plans to help it find people on its own. "One of the simple things to do is to make Emily basically as smart as a fish—just go to the group of people. She's got thermal cameras, so go to the hot spots, center yourself between the hot spots...and just hang out there, get close, and let them come to you."
The team also tested out a simple tethered drone (a free-flying UAV isn't allowed under Greek aviation regulations) that can pop up above the beach and let lifeguards survey the whole scene at once, predicting which boats look most at risk before anything happens.
Even though the system can still be tweaked and improved, lifeguards immediately liked both the robot and drone. They immediately found other uses for Emily as well—like helping guide boats around rocky shores in areas that are dangerous for the Coast Guard.
"Every professional lifeguarding team took one look at this, and said, 'Oh. Right. I want this now,'" says Murphy. The reaction was the same for the Fotokite, the quadcopter drone. "Usually when a rescue team's trying to steal things from you, that's a good sign."
Emily's inventor, Tony Mulligan, donated both robots that he brought for testing to the local coast guard. Now the company is hoping that nonprofits will begin to invest in the technology. And Murphy's team is raising money to make another trip to Lesvos and improve the robot more.