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Drones, AI and smart anti-drowning cameras: when tech helps rescuers


Do Baywatch’s shapely lifeguards have anything to worry about? In 2022, AI and drones are everywhere, even on our beaches. Many start-ups have developed technologies that could well save lives this summer.

A drone in Malibu

As you swim in the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, drones may be flying overhead. Because no, aircraft without passengers are no longer only intended for the delivery of parcels: for 4 or 5 years, experiments have multiplied all over the world to also use them to identify bathers in difficulty, and even to rescue them by sending them a boat or a lifejacket.

At the beginning of July, in Spain, off a beach in Puerto de Sagunto, in Valencia, a 14-year-old boy who could no longer reach the mainland was thus saved thanks to a drone, sent urgently by the rescuers. . This is the fifth rescue carried out since the beginning of the summer season, thanks to this system of “surveillance and rapid intervention drones”; set up in 2017.

The idea is obviously not to replace human rescuers, but to rescue bathers as quickly as possible in the event of an emergency, while humans can intervene. Once the drone sent him a self-inflating life jacket, the Spanish teenager was able to put it on and wait for the arrival (by jet ski) of two lifeguards. While the drone remained in geostationary flight, above him.

In Spain, the drone in question is produced by the startup General Drones, based in Valencia. But in France too, drones are used to save lives. Since 2018, Helper Drone has thus been supplying drones to municipalities in the south-west of France (for example, in Biscarosse), in order to help rescuers at sea. The drone notably makes it possible to save, each summer, dozens of lives on the beaches of the Landes coast, where the sea currents are dangerous and claim many victims. As Helper Drone explains on its site, the machine, which weighs 4 kg, which flies in a “stable” way; even in winds of 50 km/h, and which can cover an area of ​​2 kilometres, makes it possible to “place a self-inflating buoy near a person in difficulty”. Navigation information (GPS, compass, altitude…) “helps visually and technically locate the victim for MNS, helicopters, jet-skis, rescue boats… And thanks to its high quality video, it offers recognition and remote control of the state of the victim.”

“Of course the drone will not replace the boat or the helicopter, it is an additional tool, a bit like the jet-ski, which saves you time, organizes rescue and puts the swimmer in safety. Because to save a life, every second counts,” says Anthony Gavend, co-founder of Helper Drone. Indeed, 5 minutes is enough for a person to drown, the use of drones capable of flying at 15m/s in this kind of situation is quite easily justified…

Anti-drowning cameras

Alongside these drones that we should see increasingly appearing on our beaches, another technology promises to help humans save swimmers by preventing drownings (as soon as they occur): “smart” surveillance cameras “. These are already used in urban areas to detect strange behavior, or to track suspects, but now they are also used in the context of rescue operations at sea.

AI is everywhere, including on beaches, so… in the form of anti-drowning cameras. Recently, an Israeli start-up, SightBit, has developed a system of cameras that have been trained to recognize, thanks to deep learning, the shape of a bather in difficulty. Capable of scanning and analyzing everything that happens on the beach and in the bathing areas, even when there are countless bathers, this technology thus makes it possible to detect what a human eye, that of the lifeguard in this case , is not able to detect.

According to Times of Israel, “smart” cameras; from SightBit are able to study the strength of the current, and to determine “if a swimmer seems to be in motion, or static”. The lifeguard wears a tablet, displaying the software linked to the cameras, and if a risk of drowning is detected, SighBit sends him an alert, with instructions. “We have chosen to place this technology in places far from the first aid cabins, so these additional ‘eyes’ help the lifeguards a lot”, assures Arie Turjeman, deputy mayor of Ashdod, near Tel Aviv, where this system has been in use since May 2022. For Israeli rescuers themselves, such a device allows them to rescue a person in difficulty “much faster”.

Here again, the idea is therefore not to replace the human being (since in any case a camera will never be able to dive and save a person from drowning), but to alert the rescuers, in order to enable action to be taken as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Cameras “shark detectors”

It should be noted that in Australia, drones are used not only to prevent drowning, but also to spot sharks, which if they are ultimately the cause of only 5 or 6 fatal attacks per year, terrify swimmers, and especially surfers. During the austral summer, drones (again equipped with smart cameras) developed by the company Westpac Little Ripper and researchers from the Australian Artificial Intelligence Institute of the University of Sydney, with the support of the government, thus fly over the Australian beaches, to help swimmers in difficulty, but also to detect sharks in the water and warn the rescuers, who pilot them.

“We spot sharks and alert swimmers and surfers in real time so that they come back to the beach,” explains Nabin Sharma, a scientist from the University of Sydney behind this system, called SharkSpotter (“Detector of sharks”). “We can identify 16 different objects, such as sharks, whales, dolphins, various types of boats and many other interesting things,” adds the computer scientist. According to him, the software used, which is equipped with algorithms, is able to differentiate sharks from other fish and cetaceans, with a success rate of 90%, compared to 16% with the naked eye.

As soon as a shark is spotted, an alarm sounds, and swimmers/surfers are invited to come ashore. A little anxiety-provoking, but useful for saving lives.

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