Many swimming pools in Germany do not have enough trained lifeguards, and in many places this skilled labor shortage is causing closures. The solution could be a floating underwater rescue robot.
According to a German rescue association, nearly 420 people drowned in Germany in 2019, most of whom lost their lives in freshwater lakes, but also in swimming pools.
Now, a team of researchers from the Institute for Advanced Systems Technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, Imaging Systems and Exploitation Technologies (IOSB) aims to improve the situation with a water robot using AI, the only one of its kind in all. the world.
Scientists have used their years of experience in the area of underwater robotics to develop the autonomous device that will assist first responders and rescue swimmers in emergency situations.
“There are typical postures you can use to recognize when someone is in danger,” says computer scientist Helge Renkewitz, who led the team in close collaboration with the water rescue service Wasserrettungsdienstes Halle eV.
Surveillance cameras mounted on the roof of the pool record the movement patterns and position of the person drowning in the pool and send the coordinates to the robot. It is safely stored away from prying eyes in a docking station on the pool floor, which is opened in an emergency.
Once the vehicle has reached its destination, it locates the person in distress and brings them to the surface. A mechanism to hold the rescued in place prevents lifeless bodies from sliding down when they surface. This mechanism can also be mounted on other underwater vehicles.
Successful open water trials
On lakes, drones and zeppelin systems take over the role of surveillance cameras. “These advertising drones and balloons can easily be equipped with cameras,” says Renkewitz. Because visibility is restricted, the underwater vehicle must be equipped with acoustic rather than optical sensors. The sound wave echoes can be used to determine the position and orientation of people with such precision that the robot can autonomously direct itself towards the target person and pick them up.
This has been shown to work in practice through impressive open water tests that the researchers carried out at Lake Hufeisensee in Halle (Saale).
An 80 kilogram mannequin was deposited at a depth of three meters. The robot then picked it up, secured it in place, brought it to the surface in a second and carried it along the shortest route, a distance of 40 meters, to shore, where the rescue team was already waiting.
When the robot is informed of an emergency, a signal alerts the team immediately. “The entire rescue operation took just over two minutes. Victims must be resurrected within five minutes to avoid long-term brain damage. We were able to stay within this critical time frame without any problems, ”says Renkewitz.
The future perspective
Equipped with batteries, motor, cameras and optical and navigation sensors, the current system measures 90 centimeters long, 50 centimeters high and 50 centimeters wide. The Renkewitz team’s goal is to further reduce the size of the rescue system and build different versions for use in pools and lakes. Its aim is to make it smaller, lighter and more cost effective than the current prototype, which is based on a pre-existing underwater vehicle.
Instead, the future robot will have the streamlined design of a stingray.
Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy, a patent has already been filed for the aquatic robot. In modified versions, it can take on other tasks, such as inspections offshore and on the walls of the dam, or to monitor the health of fish in fish farms.
Underwater vehicles have a very wide range of applications, such as the detection and verification of archaeological artifacts at the bottom of lakes, where fewer victims will end up thanks to the new robot.
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